With Maine’s legislative session heading to a close, lawmakers are struggling to find a way to assist the state’s at-risk biomass energy industry and the forestry jobs that depend on it. But some are looking to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker as a potential savior.
A recent change in Massachusetts energy regulations is creating big problems for some of Maine’s commercial biomass energy generators. As of January, Massachusetts allows only biomass facilities that both create electricity and capture heat energy — so-called combined heat and power plants — to get extra payments that are awarded for energy from renewable resources.
Maine’s biomass industry was already challenged by its dependence on the spot market for wholesale electricity, which continues to provide very low prices driven by cheap power from natural gas. The added loss of those Massachusetts renewable energy credits contributed to the shutdown last week of one electricity-only biomass plant in Jonesboro, owned by Covanta Energy, which says it plans to shut down another facility in West Enfield.
Several weeks ago, Gov. Paul LePage made a personal plea to Baker, a fellow Republican, to change the rules and allow the Maine biomass generators to once again qualify for the Bay State’s renewable energy portfolio.
“They met in person, in Washington, D.C.,” said Patrick Woodcock, who directs LePage’s energy office. He noted that the new Massachusetts standards were enacted by former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and he said LePage’s arguments were well-received by Baker.
“I think he was unaware of some of the changes that occurred,” Woodcock said. “He sees Maine and Massachusetts as part of a regional economy. When Maine’s doing well, Massachusetts can do well.”
Woodcock said Baker is including the issue in an overall review of policies inherited from the previous administration. A spokeswoman for Baker’s energy department provided a general statement saying that the administration is committed to a diverse energy portfolio — but making no mention of biomass or Maine.
And if Baker does try to tinker with the renewable energy rules, he will have a fight on his hands with the environmentalists who helped get the change made in the first place.
“This is the sleeping giant that the Baker administration should really stay away from awakening,” said activist Mary Booth, who lives in western Massachusetts and was one of the leaders of the movement that led to the new rules.
Only combined heat and power biomass facilities, she said, are efficient enough to be considered renewable resources that do not add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to contribute significantly to climate change.
“Massachusetts ratepayers should not have to pay extra on their electric bills to support highly polluting, inefficient biomass energy,” Booth said. “And the Maine plants may be complaining about that, but they’ve had years to come into compliance with the regulation.”
But Bob Cleaves, director of the Maine-based Biomass Power Association, said that the Maine plants already meet the basic greenhouse gas standards in the Massachusetts rule. They burn only tree thinnings and residues that would otherwise rot and release carbon dioxide, and he said they are 50 percent more efficient than the most efficient natural gas plants.
Shutting out the Maine biomass facilities because they do not capture heat energy, he said, will only increase demand for electricity produced by more polluting sources.
“To essentially say we’re going to throw the good out the window because we can’t achieve the perfect? That doesn’t make sense from an environmental standpoint,” Cleaves said.
Environmentalists vehemently disagree with that argument. It remains to be seen whether it’s a fight that the Baker administration will take up, and many expect it could be fall before Baker shows his hand.
In the meantime, LePage and lawmakers are trying to find a Maine-based stopgap measure to help the struggling biomass and forestry industries — even though there has been little support for proposals that would add to electricity bills.
New proposals are expected this week.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.