What’s Next for Biomass?

Biomass power plants provide tremendous opportunity to help address some of California’s urban, agriculture and forest wood waste disposal challenges.  Yet why at a time when we need it most are so many shutting down?

Just last month, we received word that California forests now have more than 102 million trees killed by bark beetle and the drought.  And those numbers are expected to increase as tree mortality marches north.

As many scramble to remove trees in high hazard areas that threaten homes and power lines, California’s infrastructure to process and dispose of these trees is limited.  Most trees killed by insects cannot enter a mill and be made into wood products because of the low value material.  The remaining options to safely and efficiently dispose of the waste are minimal.  While most agree that we should remove the excess waste from the forest floor to prevent catastrophic wildfire, the debate on what to do with it continues.

We can open burn it, which can release greenhouses gases into the atmosphere and create air quality concerns.  We learned this lesson in 2007 when we stopped agriculture open burning in the San Joaquin Valley because of air emissions from the burning piles.  This does not support the State’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, which have been signed into law.  Burning it in the open when we have greener alternatives seems ludicrous.

We can pay to ship our waste stream across state lines or out of the country, often times to be buried in landfills.  California landfills have diversion goals that cannot be met unless we get wood out of them.  About 15-20% of material sent to landfills is recoverable and usable urban wood that could be used as biomass.

We can leave it in the forest to decompose or get burned when another wildfire comes through.  However, the methane emissions from decomposition over the next 30 years will be enormous. Methane is at least 25 times a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Or we can take woody byproducts, agricultural waste and urban demolition wood, and burn it in a high pressure boiler to produce steam, which turns an electric generator and creates renewable energy.

This process reduces pollution by up to 98 percent when compared with open burning, and at the same time produces enough clean renewable energy to power 600,000 California homes and businesses every year.  California has monetized the value of reduced air emissions; in the case of biomass power versus open field burning, the environmental monetized benefit is 11 cents/kilowatt-hr.

Biomass power is part of the solution and should be seen as a key contributor to reducing greenhouse gases under AB 32; increasing the use of renewable energy to meet the State’s Renewable Portfolio Standard; and, complying with the Governor’s Emergency Proclamation on tree mortality.

Yet, at a time when we need it most, biomass power plants are closing down. Of the 60 built in the 1980s, 20 remain and 9 have closed down in the past 2 ½ years.

They are shutting down because of antiquated contracts 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.

Unlike other renewables, biomass is not a subsidized industry and while it certainly provides tremendous opportunity to solve our current situation, without leveling the playing field or providing certainty to the industry, they are closing – leaving our forests and communities at increased risk, reducing jobs, and wasting the opportunity to create clean, renewable, local power.

Thankfully, this past year, Governor Jerry Brown California signed SB 859 which would require the utilities to procure 125 megawatts of biomass power, and under the Governor’s Tree Mortality Proclamation, the Public Utilities Commission is required to procure 50 megawatts of biomass power through an auction.

While this is a great first step, far more needs to be done to address California’s urban, agriculture, and forest annual wood waste stream.  The industry is still in need of certainty and is exploring alternative options.

One of those viable options includes the formation of community choice aggregation (CCA), which gives local communities the ability to enter into power purchase agreements with biomass plants in order to provide consumer choice, lower costs and increased renewable energy.

CCAs are local, nonprofits within a given jurisdiction that serve as an energy service provider by taking on the decision-making role about the sources of energy for its customers.  Once established, CCAs become the default service provider for the power mix delivered to customers, although residents can opt out if they choose.  In a CCA service territory, the investor owned utility continues to own and maintain the transmission and distribution infrastructure, metering and billing.

CCAs are somewhat new to California, only having been passed in the Legislature in 2002, but are becoming an increasingly popular option for both rural and urban communities seeking to increase the use of renewable energy and support local economies.

In fact, California has six existing community choice power operations.   And according to Cal CCA, 20 communities are actively pursuing some stage of evaluation and development.  Most importantly, Redwood Coast Energy Authority is launching in May 2017 and is seeking to contract with several local biomass power plants.

According to the Center for Climate Protection, more than 2 million people are served by CCAs throughout the state.  In Sonoma County, CCAs have reduced GHG emissions by 11 percent and saved consumers $62 million dollars.

CCAs have been awarded with U.S EPA’s green power leadership award and by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for its increase in green power, while still maintaining competitive rates.

So are CCA’s a new emerging alternative?

While many have been praised for their environmental excellence, there have been efforts to thwart their expansion.

However, we at Calforests support efforts to revive the biomass industry in order to provide renewable energy; reduce emissions; reduce the risk of wildfire; and, help create healthy more resilient forests.