Last week, the Patrick administration proposed strict new rules for "biomass" plants in the state, including limits on what kinds of wood could be burned in such plants. The regulations would also set high energy-efficiency thresholds that must be met for plants to qualify for state renewable-energy credits, which, in many cases, would help make the plants economically feasible for developers.
The proposed regulations signal a dramatic retreat from the days when the state was touting such plants as a green solution to the energy problem. Rather, the new rules reflect research—including a state-commissioned 2010 report by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences—showing that wood-burning plants actually contribute to greenhouse gases more than other fuel sources, including coal.
The proposed rules must undergo review by the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy and the Department of Energy Resources. A final version is expected to go into effect this summer.
How the regulations would affect several controversial plants proposed in western Mass. is a matter of debate. News stories in the days after the Patrick administration's announcement suggested the three plants would effectively be killed by the rules; as the Boston Globe reported, "If the regulations are made final, it could mean that three proposed large wood-burning, or biomass, plants in Russell, Springfield, and Greenfield would not be built because they would no longer be eligible for renewable energy credits that made them more competitive with traditional power sources. However, smaller plants that generate electricity and also use the heat are eligible and could be built."
Not so fast, warn Valley activists opposed to biomass. Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield responded to last week's news with the assertion that the changes would "have no impact" on Palmer Renewable Energy's proposed East Springfield plant. "Although these regulations would almost eliminate the ability for large-scale biomass incinerators to receive [renewable energy credits] due to the inefficiency of these plants, they do not halt or delay permitting of such plants," STIS said. "And for proposed incinerators, like the one planned for Springfield by Palmer Renewable Energy which claims not to need the [credits] to make the project profitable, the permitting process is proceeding apace."
A recent issue of Biomass Power & Thermal—an industry magazine that calls biomass opponents in Massachusetts "bullies"—quoted Vic Gatto of Caletta Renewable Energy, which is working with PRE to develop the Springfield plant, on the administration's proposal. "The notion that anybody is going to get those levels of efficiency is humorous," Gatto told the magazine. "It wouldn't make sense that they would keep those efficiency numbers there, but that doesn't mean that they won't. At this point, we'll just have to wait and see what they come up with, and we're content to move forward regardless of what they decide to do."
Opponents of the plant, then, are also moving forward with their own efforts to stop the project on the local level. On May 17, the Springfield City Council will meet to consider amending or revoking a special permit awarded in 2008 to Palmer Renewable Energy for its proposed $150-million, 35-megawatt plant, to be located on Page Boulevard.
Opponents of the project have been calling on the Council to revoke that permit for months. They warn the project would worsen the area's already poor air quality and exacerbate existing public health problems, including higher-than-average asthma rates. Twenty percent of schoolchildren in Springfield have asthma, twice the statewide rate.
Next week's meeting was called by Council President Jose Tosado and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, a staunch opponent of the project. "I think it's time the City Council took another stand on this and hears both the opponents and proponents and makes the decision that's best for the city, and that's also legal," Tosado—who is running for mayor this fall—told the Advocate last week.
Tosado declined to say what he'd like the outcome of the meeting to be since, as Council president, he will chair the meeting. "I need to maintain an open mind," he said. "However, having said that, I definitely have a lot of questions."
Tosado voted for the Palmer Renewable Energy permit in 2008. (Others who voted for it and remain on the Council are at-large Councilors Jimmy Ferrera, Tim Rooke and Kateri Walsh.) At the time of the vote, Tosado said, he relied on information provided to the Council that convinced him the plant would be clean and safe. But in the intervening years, he said, "we've been inundated with so much information about the effects, on [plant] neighbors and the city as a whole....
"In all good conscience, I'm not sure it's a project I can support. I've received no additional information that has swayed me at this point," Tosado added.
While critics of the plant are encouraged by next week's Council hearing, the plant's developers have indicated that they won't go down without a fight. Frank Fitzgerald, the attorney for Palmer Renewable Energy, has said that his client will sue if the permit is revoked.
"Legally, I think it's a big question mark," Tosado said of that threat. "I think we've gotten conflicting information" about whether PRE would have the legal right to sue. While the city Law Department has raised concerns about a potential lawsuit, Tosado noted, the Council can legally revoke a permit for just cause.
Fitzgerald has not returned calls from the Advocate.
Among Tosado's opponents in the mayor's race, School Committee member Antonette Pepe has yet to take a public position on the PRE project. Incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno has voiced his "conditional" support, "contingent on the proposed facility meeting all stringent federal, state and local environmental, health and safety requirements," according to a statement released by the mayor that also noted the new jobs and tax revenue the project would create for the city.
The meeting on the PRE permit is scheduled for Tuesday, May 17, at 4:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers in City Hall.