By David Bischel and Paul Wenger:
California’s wildfire season is off to a ferocious start. Fueled by overcrowded forests that are dry from drought and by more than 66 million drought-killed trees, it’s important that California consider how we as a state can safely and efficiently deal with disposing of the excess wood.
So far this year, California wildfires have burned more than 193,000 acres. We have more than 66 million trees killed from the drought and bark beetle, and experts expect to see more. Our forests are clearly in crisis and in order to ensure public health and safety, forest owners are calling for immediate action.
That’s why the governor issued an emergency proclamation last year to help expedite the removal of drought-killed trees in high hazard zones.
Firefighters have been clearing excess fuel in an attempt to protect communities, utilities and roadways, but the severity of the problem is just too much. Instead, highway turnouts are being stacked with wood, and fallen trees are simply left on the forest floor because California lacks the infrastructure to process so much wood waste.
Leaving these trees in the forests can cause wildfires to burn hotter, longer and more unpredictably. While everyone seems to agree that removal is the answer, we need to help support the infrastructure to remove and process it.
Biomass power plants provide an opportunity.
Biomass takes woody byproducts, agricultural waste and urban demolition wood, and burns it in a high pressure boiler to produce steam that spins a turbine and creates renewable energy. This process reduces pollution by up to 98 percent when compared with open burning, and at the same time produces renewable energy to power California homes and businesses.
According to the Biomass Energy Alliance, the biomass power plants consume approximately 4 million bone-dry tons of the state’s wood waste and turn it into clean, renewable power every year, producing around 532 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 600,000 homes.
The biomass power plant industry is a much-needed solution to the state’s emergency on dead trees.
Yet, at a time when we need it most, biomass power plants are closing down. Out of the remaining 22 biomass facilities in California, seven have expiring energy price contracts and are likely to close by the fall.
They are shutting down because of antiquated contracts with utilities that do not cover their costs. Most were in long-term contracts that are expiring and not being renewed because of the cost to produce biomass energy. Unlike other renewables, biomass is not subsidized and while it certainly provides tremendous opportunity to solve our current situation, without leveling the playing field or providing certainty to the industry, the plants are closing — leaving our forests and communities at increased risk of fire and air pollution, and wasting the opportunity to create clean, renewable power.
This faltering industry is in need of help in order to continue providing environmental and economic benefits to California.
Thankfully, the Legislature recognized the importance of biomass power plants and passed SB859, which would require the utilities to procure 125 megawatts of biomass power. It is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.
The bill calls for 80 percent of the plants’ feedstock to come from byproducts of sustainable forestry management.
This bill recognizes the emergency situation and serves as a step in the right direction. However, we will continue to advocate for the utilization of biomass power, especially in areas that were left out of the bill.
Biomass provides jobs in rural communities; provides renewable energy to help meet the state’s goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030; will help reduce the risk of wildfire; and, will help create healthy more resilient forests. To not support an industry that provides so many solutions to California would be a waste.
David Bischel is the president of the California Forestry Association. Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 2016