My Turn: What gets defined as renewable energy?

  • Sen. Jo Comerford Sen. Jo Comerford

Published: 7/29/2021 8:15:18 AM

This week, our air turned hazy as winds blew in wildfire smoke from the West Coast, a stark reminder that when it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together.

On Friday, I’ve been invited to testify at an oversight hearing of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy (TUE). The subject? Biomass, or the burning of natural material like wood at a large scale to generate energy.

The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) has issued updated draft regulations for the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). The RPS mandates that electricity suppliers in Massachusetts get a certain percentage of the energy they provide to customers from renewable sources. When the RPS began, suppliers were required to get just 1% of their energy from renewables. This year, suppliers are required to get 18 percent of their energy from “Class 1 renewable resources.” That requirement will now increase by three percent per year thanks to the legislature’s passage of omnibus climate legislation earlier this session, ensuring that at least 40 percent of our energy will come from renewable resources by 2030.

(And, yes. I still maintain that we should be on a path to 100 percent renewable energy, given the climate crisis.)

So what’s the catch? In this case, it hinges on what gets defined as a renewable resource.

Here’s a little background: In 2019, DOER proposed rolling back efficiency standards for biomass facilities to make it easier for them to qualify as an RPS Class 1 resource. Under DOER’s proposal, a biomass plant that had been proposed for Springfield, the asthma capital of the nation, would have been eligible for over $10 million in annual state subsidies.

You may know what happened next. A years-long tidal wave of activism helped move DOER to reverse course and deny a permit to the proposed facility in Springfield.

This was activism based in science. About five years ago, a cadre of major health organizations sent a letter to Congress which included this powerful indictment:

“Biomass is far from ‘clean’ – burning biomass creates air pollution that causes a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, resulting in emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths.” 

When DOER rightly changed course on the Springfield biomass plan, it amended its proposed regulations to stipulate that biomass facilities located within five miles of an environmental justice community would not be eligible for RPS subsidies.

Across the commonwealth, environmental justice communities — those with low income or high percentages of immigrants or people of color — have borne the brunt of pollution for generations and, tragically, the impacts can be clearly seen in the health of residents. By proposing that biomass plants sited near environmental justice communities would not be RPS-eligible, DOER clearly acknowledged that environmental justice communities cannot and should not bear the negative health impacts of large scale biomass plants.

Unfortunately, this DOER proposal means that about 10 percent of the state, including 21 communities west of the Quabbin Reservoir, would become the only places where biomass facilities are RPS eligible.

On Friday, I’m going to make two things clear:

Biomass should not be considered a Class 1 renewable resource, like solar or wind. It doesn’t matter where the facility is sited, the science still says, “No.” A biomass plant located more than five miles away from an environmental justice community is not any “greener” than a biomass plant in Springfield. Location of the facility has never been a factor in RPS Class 1 eligibility, and only the most environmentally friendly sources should be included in this most strict Class 1 category.

One key way to move equitably forward in the wake of the COVID pandemic’s devastation — a virus that preyed on respiratory systems, especially those that were already vulnerable from years of breathing disproportionately dirty air — is to recognize, once and for all, the inextricable link between our climate and our health. To do this, we must invest boldly in a truly clean energy future in the Commonwealth.

In May of this year, dozens of national climate and public health organizations released A Declaration on Climate Change and Health, calling on President Biden and Congress to “heed the clear scientific evidence and take steps now to dramatically reduce pollution that drives climate change and harms health.” In a short list focused on “equitable climate action and pollution cleanup,” these groups called for “measures to secure dramatic reductions in carbon emissions from power plants, including rapid phaseout of power plants that burn fossil fuels, biomass, and waste-for-energy.”

More than 70 Commonwealth organizations and businesses including the Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental League of Massachusetts, and Climate Action Now, wrote in another May letter, “Since air pollution travels, and all communities contain sensitive populations, the state should be reducing the number and types of polluting technologies that qualify for state support, not increasing them.”

Releasing carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere, whether on the west coast or in western Massachusetts, threatens the planet that we all share. Let’s work to get this right like all of our lives depend on it, because they do.

Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.




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