by Dylan Voorhees, NRCM Clean Energy Project Director
Senator Thibodeau and Representative Fitts,
The Natural Resources Council of Maine opposes providing above-market contracts specifically for stand-alone biomass generators. We have three principle reasons for opposing the bill as written.
First, we believe it is a mistake to require utilities to enter into above-market contracts for biomass generation as opposed to other forms of renewable energy. As a general matter, we support policies to promote additional renewable energy development to further reduce our environmentally and economically dangerous overdependence on fossil fuels. This includes policies like the Renewable Portfolio Standard, Long-term Contracting and the Community-Based Renewable Energy Act, all of which attempt to better level the playing field with heavily subsidized fossil fuels, and make renewable development more attractive. But there are several viable renewable energy technologies available in Maine, and we see little reason to leave those out and distort the market accordingly. The bill proposes contracts that may be as much as two cents/kwh above market rates, so it would not be an inconsequential distortion of the renewables market, which include on- and off-shore wind, solar, tidal, etc.
Second, “picking biomass” is particularly problematic because we are concerned about emissions from stand-alone biomass power plants, including from a climate perspective. An increasing abundance of research makes it clear that power generated from burning biomass is not “climate-neutral” (i). BTU for BTU, biomass combustion emits more carbon at the stack than many fossil fuels. That carbon “debt” may eventually be partially “repaid” by absorption of carbon through growing trees. The details of how much carbon pollution biomass emits on net, and over what timescale, is highly complex and dependent on: the nature of wood supplies and forestry practices, the efficiency of combustion, and the alternatives to biomass generation. For example, burning biomass in a high-efficiency cogeneration facility is much more likely to be beneficial from a climate pollution perspective than stand-alone biomass generators which combust their fuels at much lower efficiencies. Given the concerns that scientists and others have raised about the near and medium-term carbon net-emissions from biomass (and even long-term in some the worst cases), and the lack of any clear framework to ensure biomass power is done well, this bill is at odds with Maine’s climate goals. Furthermore, biomass power plants also have other air emissions, such as NOx and particulate matter, that have real air quality impacts as well. (To be fair, we acknowledge that nearly every source of power has impacts, even renewable onesâbut we remain especially concerned about the environmental impacts from stand alone biomass plants.)
Finally, we are concerned that the bill might have unintended negative consequences for the underlying Community-Based Renewables Energy Actâalthough this is somewhat unclear at this time. There does not appear to be a good fit between that Act and this proposal to offer short-term contracts to older biomass plants. Indeed in no fewer than four places, the bill excludes or exempts biomass from the essential criteria and limitations of the original Act (ii). What might have been a result of drafting convenience could negatively impact the integrity of the Community Renewables Act, which in many ways remains new enough that its potential is still being developed. In short, it opens the door wide for further changes that could completely undermine the intention of fostering additional small to medium-scale renewable energy projects that are owned and supported by Maine people.
In conclusion, this committee has debated the wisdom of offering specific energy contracts to certain types of generation almost every year for several years. The prevailing wisdom (whether we agree with it or not) is that the state should go cautiously into requiring new above market-contracts. The general intent of existing long-term contracting laws and rules, which we support, is to promote development of new capacity where those resources will stabilize or lower electric costs over the long term in a way that is favorable for ratepayers. The approach in this bill does not accomplish those objectives (nor allay our concerns about subsidizing generation that is probably not consistent with significantly reducing climate changing emissions.)
 See for example: Science, 325:529, October 23, 2009. Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error. Searchinger, T., et al.; Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. 2010. Massachusetts Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study: Report to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Walker, T. (Ed.). Brunswick, Maine; or Attached letter on biomass carbon accounting from approx. 90 scientists to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate President Harry Reid. May 17, 2010.
 As written in the proposed bill, biomass plants: would not need to be owned locally; would not need to be new; would not subject to the size limitations; and would not be eligible for the two primary benefits of the Act, contracts or capacity credits.