California Biomass Support Sets Good Example

Biomass Power Association Bob Cleaves discusses challenges currently being faced by the California biomass power industry.
By Bob Cleaves | June 25, 2015

Depending on market conditions, biomass power can sometimes be a tough proposition. Government support is crucial in many areas, and also warranted, when considering the environmental and economic benefits from biomass alongside the often high cost of fuel.

In California, the biomass industry is facing some severe challenges. In recent years, many facilities have shut down as Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 contracts expired and natural gas became a cheaper and available option.

Several newspaper articles from around the state have documented the decline of biomass and the markets that would be affected if local facilities were to shut down. A good portion of the 565 MW of biomass power are in jeopardy, and with them, many farmers who rely on their local facilities to purchase residues from orchards and other agricultural waste.

A recent article in the Hanford Sentinel, “Decline of Valley biomass plants a threat to ag,” covered the biomass crisis. It reads in part:

“Growers are asking: If you can’t burn orchard trees that have been removed, and you’ve got no biomass plant to send them to, where does it all go? ‘They just pile up,’ said Dino Giacomazzi, Kings County Farm Bureau president. ‘Currently, biomass plants are about the only way we have to dispose of orchard removal.’”

 The dilemma was further explored in another story in California’s Woodland Daily Democrat, “Biomass power plants running out of steam.” It reads in part:

“Tulare County farmer Chris Lange has about 80 acres of uprooted citrus and olive trees that he needs to have cleared and chipped. Lange said he is waiting on a chipping company, which has not yet received approval from biomass plants to bring the orchard waste in to be processed into electricity.
‘We have been waiting for the chipper to come and it is just not happening,’  Lange said. ‘I understand that the contracts for the chippers by the cogeneration plants are not being renewed. We (in the San Joaquin Valley) have more permanent crops being pushed out than ever, and this leaves everybody hanging.’”

The Woodland Daily Democrat went on to quote Steve Brink, California Forestry Association vice president of public resources, who said that electricity produced from natural gas costs 2 to 6 cents per kilowatt, whereas biomass power costs about 10 cents per kilowatt. “With no direction from state government to pay the known environmental benefit, what would you expect the utility to do?,” the Democrat quoted Brink. “The state has not provided any direction of where this (biomass) needs to go. There’s 1 million, bone-dry tons just in the Northern California forests on both public and private lands that is piled up and burned, now that there’s no place to take it.”

With orchard growers pulling out and replacing older trees with young trees in an effort to conserve water during the drought, and with fewer biomass plants operating, “the problem is now amplified,” Brink said.

Luckily, there is some good news. The California state legislature is considering a bill that would help shore up the industry by recognizing its environmental benefits. Led by the California Biomass Energy Alliance, the bill will direct $50 million to a Biomass State Cost Share Account within the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. The Assembly overwhelmingly voiced its support for the biomass industry by passing Assembly Bill 590,” said Julee Malinowski-Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance, in the association’s press release. “This bill will provide needed funding for biomass plants by allocating Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds to the facilities for its environmental benefits.”
Malinowki-Ball continued, “For more than a quarter century, biomass plants have been providing reliable, renewable, utility-scale power in California. Despite our numerous benefits, biomass is often overlooked.  This funding will ensure that biomass plants will be compensated for its environmental benefits.”

The bill unanimously passed assembly floor and will now head to the California Senate.
This is good news, and not just for the California biomass plants facing closure. As the U.S. EPA’s final Clean Power Plan is released later this summer, California’s support for biomass sets a precedent for other states designing their own carbon reduction plans.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association