Experts discuss wildfire mitigation, beneficial use of biomass

By Erin Voegele | September 24, 2019

The California Council on Science & Technology hosted an expert briefing at the California State Capitol Sept. 19 focused on the beneficial uses of wood biomass from wildfire mitigation. The briefing was the fourth in a series on wildfires hosted by CCST.

The panel featured Kevin Fingerman from Humboldt State University, Angela Lottes from CAL FIRE, Aindrila Mukhopadhyay from the Joint Bioenergy Institute, and George Peridas from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The briefing was moderated by Evan Johnson from the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research. The event was held in partnership with the Office of State Sen. Brian Dahle.

A document released by the CCST in conjunction with the hearing explains that prior to Euro-American settlement, an estimated 4.5 to 12 million acres of forestland burned annually in California. At the turn of the 20th century, the state began to enact policies that aimed to suppress wildfires. A century of fire prevention efforts, however, led to increased densities and fire loads that have resulted in severe, unintended consequences to forest resilience, including the promotion of more destructive wildfires.

Forests treatments, such as thinning, for wildfire mitigation produce large quantities of low-value wood biomass material that is not suitable for traditional lumber. Without an alternative use for this material, it is often burned onsite, which creates no added value and contributes to carbon emissions. Experts, including those featured on the panel, are working to solve that problem through the beneficial use of low-value biomass.

Part of the discussion focused on the challenges of converting low-value forest biomass into energy and products. Fingerman noted the cost of residue mobilization and the current inability to secure long-term sourcing contracts are two of the primary challenges.

He said it can cost $30 to $60 a ton to mobilize that biomass materials from the woods and bring it to a facility where it can be used to produce energy or products. “That’s a significant cost for what is otherwise a very low value product,” Fingerman said.

Companies that want to convert that material into bioproducts, biomaterials or even wood chips also need the ability to secure long-term, consistent supplies of feedstock, he added. The inability to secure that type of contract presents a significant business problem.

Peridas suggested the state government could help solve logistical challenges associated with the use of low-value biomass by transporting biomass to the fence line of facilities that convert the material into fuels, products or energy. If the state determines the use of this biomass material in a priority in terms of fire prevention and climate goals, he also suggested it could provide assistance by making permitting process more efficient.  

Additional information, including a video of the briefing, is available on the CCST website