Massachusetts Studies Biomass Sustainability before Setting RPS Criteria

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) selected the Manomet Center for Conservation Services of Plymouth to lead a comprehensive study of issues related to biomass sustainability and carbon policy. Launched at the direction of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Ian Bowles, the six-month study will result in a "white paper" that brings the best science to bear as DOER prepares new regulations to establish sustainability criteria biomass facilities must meet under the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

"Biomass is an important renewable energy resource, but it must be developed in a way that is truly sustainable, maintaining our forests and protecting our environment for future generations," Bowles said. "I am confident that the top-notch team of experts DOER has assigned to this study will provide answers to the full range of scientific and public policy questions still outstanding on the environmental impacts of this technology."

Biomass technology has qualified under the Massachusetts RPS since it was created in 2002. The RPS provides financial incentives for eligible renewable energy facilities by requiring utility companies and other electricity suppliers to deliver a minimum percentage of RPS-qualified renewable energy to their customers. The Green Communities Act of 2008 accelerated the rate of increase of this percentage (currently at 4 percent) from 0.5 to 1 percent annually.

Public policy questions regarding the environmental impacts of biomass have arisen in the wake of recent proposals for four new biomass plants in western Massachusetts. The Manomet Center brings a team of consultants with national and worldwide recognition in forestry and conservation as well as the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, the Forest Guild, the Biomass Energy Resource Center, and other independent forest ecologists and resource economists. The work of the team will be reviewed by an Independent Advisory Panel including David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, and Alaric Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute – both representing organizations that are global leaders on carbon neutrality, ecosystem management, environmental policy and the conservation of forest landscapes.

"We need a better understanding of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biomass feedstock, as well as the impact biomass plants have on forest resources," DOER Commissioner Phil Giudice said. "The information produced through this study will position the Commonwealth to adopt best-in-the-nation sustainability criteria for biomass RPS eligibility."

At the start of data gathering process, the Manomet-led team will hold a public stakeholder meeting in western Massachusetts in late November to introduce the project and solicit questions and comments from environmental organizations, regional planning commissions, the forest products industry, members of the public and state agencies. Three additional presentations and discussion sessions will be held to review the project's findings.

Among issues the study team will explore and report on to DOER are: sustainable forest management and ecological implications of biomass harvesting; assessment of the projected development of biomass facilities in Massachusetts; carbon sequestration of managed versus unmanaged forests; the net effect of biomass energy on atmospheric carbon balance; and U.S. and international policies with regard to biomass and carbon neutrality.

Under terms of the contract, the Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study must be complete by May 30, 2010.

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