Panel approves plan to rate biomass facilities by efficiency levels
by Alan Panebaker vtdigger.org A comprehensive energy bill voted down in committee last week is back on its feet.
Last week, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy voted 3-2 against H. 468, which would require utilities to purchase a percentage of their energy from “renewable” sources.
McNeil Generating plant, Burlington. VTD
A week later, the committee came back with an amendment that would require a tiered approach to biomass facilities, meaning more efficient plants would get more credit than less efficient ones.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, the swing vote, shifted sails this week to vote for the bill.
MacDonald voted against the bill last week in large part because of a special program for IBM that would allow the company to have a special greenhouse gas offset program.
But a different amendment, providing for a “tiering” of biomass facilities, changed his mind.
In the House version of the energy bill, all biomass plants would be treated equally, and utilities could count energy from those facilities in the form of a credit. MacDonald didn’t buy that.
“You shouldn’t open plant that would voraciously consume the forests in a totally inefficient manner then get a subsidy in the form of a renewable energy credit,” he said.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council has supported the tiering idea, but some in the industry and the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy say it would effectively ban large-scale biomass facilities.
Adam Necrason, a lobbyist for Beaver Wood Energy, said the House bill would be better for Vermont.
Under that version, the proposed Fair Haven Energy Center would qualify for renewable credits, making the power more value to utilities, who could keep the credits to meet their required quota.
Necrason said the biomass industry is already strictly regulated.
“Current state regulations already ensure biomass power faces strict forest health controls,” he said. “In fact, only biomass power faces robust, mandatory forest harvest controls while logging for any other purpose faces only minimal standards.”
Johanna Miller, energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said tiering biomass is an important factor in ensuring sustainable forestry.
“What’s in the bill now is a really important piece of the puzzle that we’ve been pushing for a long time,” she said.
She said the proposal is consistent with recommendations from a biomass working group to the Legislature.
The last-minute move to insert the biomass provision, one of many happening in the Senate at the end of the session, caught two Republicans on the committee a little by surprise. Sens. Joe Benning and Randy Brock said the late strike-all amendment was unsettling.
“Procedurally, we vetted the initial bill and its initial amendments,” Benning said. “What we’ve just done in committee after we said we were not going to vote bill out is in 20 minutes we voted to change that based on an amendment we took no testimony on whatsoever.”
Benning is from the Northeast Kingdom, and he said he is concerned that the state is pushing for too much wind energy in his region while the energy is sold elsewhere.
“Right now the Northeast Kingdom is rapidly becoming the pinwheel cushion for the state of Vermont,” he said. “I don’t think people in my area appreciate the fact that we are the target for renewable energy in the form of 400-foot wind towers for the power that we in the kingdom are not using.”
Benning voted with Sens. MacDonald and Dick McCormack last week to add amendments to a solid waste bill that would ban carryout plastic bags from retail stores in 2014 and expand the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverage containers like bottled water and wine.
Benning said he supports cleaning up the local environment over trying to solve the global climate change problem, where in the grand scheme, Vermont will have little effect.
The 2012 energy bill would, for the first time in the state’s history, require utilities to retain “renewable energy credits” for their power. In 2035, they would have to demonstrate 35 percent of their energy came from specified renewable sources through these credits, which act as an accounting mechanism for the region.
It would also expand the state’s standard offer program, which guarantees rates for local renewable projects.