California Biomass: Abundant Fuel Needs Policy Solution

The tree mortality problem in California has gotten so dire that officials aren’t waiting for a biomass solution. Rather, it is considering the use of expensive mobile incinerators.
By Bob Cleaves | July 28, 2016

California continues to be a frustrating illustration of the paradox of biomass nationwide: So much fuel exists and needs a place to go, yet many biomass facilities are struggling to stay open. An estimated 66 million dead and diseased trees across California—enhanced by a years-long drought combined with a pine beetle epidemic—means fuels are plentiful, but they aren’t being used for biomass power.

Encouragingly, there appears to be widespread agreement that a strong biomass sector would solve many problems, promoting the removal of hazardous fuels and improving air quality that worsens with open-burning and forest fires. A strong and productive biomass industry can also help the U.S. Forest Service reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and, in doing so, reduce budget spending on fighting fires.
Because of the stiff competition presented by low natural gas prices, many biomass facilities have closed their doors or are carefully considering that option. As a result, some in California are concerned about what to do with hazardous fuels that desperately need clearing, as well as with the agricultural waste that typically is purchased by biomass facilities.

A December 2015 Los Angeles Times story looked at the air quality issues at stake with the closure of some biomass facilities. The story noted that biomass facilities drastically reduce farmers’ costs for waste and residue removal. Without this outlet, some farmers anticipate their waste removal expenditures to increase as much as threefold.

In California, if there is no biomass facility available to take on these materials as fuel, farmers are allowed to open-burn them. This is undeniably bad for the environment, releasing increased levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere.

According to a study sponsored by the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, without a biomass power facility—aside from carbon dioxide—dramatically higher levels of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and methane are released into the atmosphere. The authors of the study wrote, “Energy production and reductions in criteria air pollutants and GHG emissions were quantified from utilization of forest woody biomass wastes to fuel electricity generation as an alternative to open-pile burning.” However, they went on to caution that biomass economics are not favorable to achieve these reductions, citing transportation and processing costs, and encouraged a state program to value the benefits of biomass on the basis of its emissions-avoidance benefits.

The tree mortality problem in California has gotten so dire that officials aren’t waiting for a biomass solution. Rather than salvaging some value out of hazardous fuels harvested, as would happen if they went to a biomass facility, the state of California is considering the use of expensive mobile incinerators. These devices would travel around the state, simply destroying the dead and diseased trees on the spot. While these burners would solve the immediate problem of hazardous fuel removal, there are serious concerns about them from an air quality and GHG perspective. A biomass facility would not only put these materials to good use, it would also greatly reduce emissions from burning them.

The California Biomass Energy Alliance has been working hard, collaborating with state officials to find a solution that would keep the biomass industry on course and help the state and U.S. Forest Service address the problem of abundant hazardous fuel. We look forward to seeing what results.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President, Biomass Power Association