Foes say a wood burning plant in Johnston would release carbon and potential contaminants.
Despite the objections of environmental groups, the General Assembly is poised to expand a key state renewable energy program in support of a so-called biomass power plant being contemplated in Johnston that would burn wood waste to generate electricity.
The plant is being proposed by North Kingstown-based Green Development, the company that is a lead player in a debate in Rhode Island over the installation of solar arrays in woodlands and farm fields. Green Development has also installed more land-based wind turbines in Rhode Island than any other company, including 10 in Coventry and another seven going up near the Central Landfill in Johnston.
The biomass bill won Senate approval early this month and cleared the House Committee on Corporations on Tuesday. A vote by the full House had yet to be scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.
A spokesman for Green Development said the company won’t be able to build the biomass plant without the change in law.
“Unless you attach biomass to net metering, the economics simply do not make sense,” said Bill Fischer.
He and others say the bill would help expand Rhode Island’s renewable energy portfolio by offering the same incentives to biomass that wind and solar power already receive.
The legislation would include biomass in the 2011 state net metering law, which allows entities to offset their electric bills through the sale of renewable energy to the power grid.
The change would bring the law in line with the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, which passed in 2004 and includes biomass as a qualifying source. No biomass projects have been developed yet in Rhode Island. National Grid, however, does buy large amounts of biomass power from other parts of New England to meet the annual targets set by the Renewable Energy Standard.
Rep. Kenneth A. Marshall, the Bristol Democrat who introduced the bill in the House, said it makes no sense to purchase biomass power from out of state and not offer incentives to develop it in-state.
“You can’t say that we have a mandate to reach an environmental goal and on the flip side say, ‘We don’t want that to happen,’” Marshall, the senior deputy majority leader, said in an interview.
In written testimony to the legislature, Mark DePasquale, the founder of Green Development, argued that his new plant will use wood waste that would otherwise be thrown away in the Central Landfill and would release methane as it breaks down. (There is a biogas plant at the landfill that burns methane.)
“Rather than throw it away, we would like to process the clean wood in a highly engineered biomass plant to generate steady, baseload power and reduce greenhouse gas production while increasing our energy independence,” he wrote.
But environmental groups that include the Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center counter that burning wood waste will produce carbon emissions and nitrous oxides. They also say that if the plant were to burn other construction or demolition debris, it would release potential contaminants from lead paint and arsenic.
“Expanding use of biomass will increase conventional air pollution by subsidizing a technology — wood burning — that is one of the largest sources of air pollution in the U.S. per megawatt hour of energy produced,” James Bryan McCaffrey, of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, wrote in testimony to the General Assembly.
Johnathan Berard, Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action, wrote in an email, “This legislation would not only undo [Rhode Island’s] long-standing ban on incineration … but it is clearly a quid pro quo for a prominent campaign donor.”
DePasquale has made more than $30,000 in campaign contributions over the past seven years to state government leaders, including House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Gov. Gina Raimondo.
This is not the first time legislation has been proposed that would help DePasquale’s company.
Under its previous name, Wind Energy Development, it was at the center of a Smith Hill controversy two years ago when the proposed House budget bill included a provision that would have sidestepped a decision by the state Public Utilities Commission and potentially shifted some of the costs to ratepayers for connecting renewable energy to the power grid.
The language in the budget bill was lifted from legislation introduced by then-state Rep. John Carnevale that failed to win passage. Carnevale ended his campaign for reelection after a WPRI story raised questions about whether he resided in the district he represented.
After The Journal wrote about the proposed provision and the way it was designed to help DePasquale’s wind project in Coventry, it was removed from the budget legislation.
The back and forth over biomass is playing out nationally. Last month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt announced his agency’s determination that biomass is carbon neutral, but opponents of the policy change say it ignores the air pollution caused by burning wood and encourages the felling of trees.
Marshall said that new biomass technology recaptures smoke and burns it to reduce emissions. He also said that the plant in Johnston would only use stumps, wood pallets and other wood waste and not other debris or fresh-cut trees.
The DEM, the state Office of Energy Resources and the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers have all taken a neutral position on the legislation.