RI Biomass Bill Sparks Debate Between Environmentalists, Green Energy Developers

May 21, 2018

Environmentalists and green energy companies in Rhode Island are at odds over a bill that could advance the development of biomass power plants in the state. 

Biomass is organic material, such as wood, that can be burned to produce energy. The Environmental Protection Agency also considers it a renewable resource. 

However, biomass is not included in the state's "net-metering" program, which applies to other renewable technologies, such as solar and wind.

When those types of energy resources are installed, homeowners and businesses can save money on their utility bills. Customers receive credits from utility companies when their renewables generate excess energy that flows back into the regional electrical grid. 

Rhode Island lawmakers want biomass to be a part of that program, but environmentalists are against the idea.  

“Burning biomass produces carbon dioxide, of course, and a host of other pollutants, including particulate matter and nitrous oxide," Erika Niedowski, policy advocate for Acadia Center, said. 

Green Development, a Rhode Island-based company, is contemplating development of a biomass power plant. Spokesman Bill Fischer said the plant wouldn’t be economically feasible without this bill.

Fischer said the plant would keep hundreds of thousands of tons of wood out of the state landfill.

"When you leave wood rotting in a landfill, it produces methane and it goes up into the atmosphere and it’s more toxic than CO2, and so the status quo right now of 200,000 tons of wood rotting in the landfill is not a good public policy for the state of Rhode Island," Fischer said. 

Fischer said Green Development plans to burn wood that is clean, meaning it's free of chemicals like lead paint. However, environmentalists said the language of the bill doesn’t prevent other companies from burning contaminated wood.

Rep. Kenneth Marshall, the bill’s sponsor, said it would require power plant developers in the state to meet certain environmental standards.

"This does not open up the door for anybody to just turn on a biomass plant," Marshall said. "They would still have to meet the strict standards of the department of environmental management as well as the EPA Clean Air Act."

There are currently no biomass power plants in Rhode Island, but utility companies do buy biomass energy from other New England states to comply with the 2004 Renewable Energy Standard.  

The EPA recently made a controversial decision to redefine biomass as "carbon-neutral," meaning the resource's net amount of carbon emissions is reduced to zero by offsetting it through other methods, such as planting trees. 

Rhode Island's biomass bill has already been approved by the state Senate and still needs approval from the full House.