California bioenergy stymied without bill passage

By Anna Austin | May 31, 2010
A bill (AB 222) that would expedite the introduction of new conversion technologies to produce advanced biofuels and/or green power from organic waste materials in California has recently gained support from three powerful state regulatory agencies. Without endorsement from two Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality, however, AB 222 will not reach the Senate floor and will die at the end of the year, allowing many barriers to bioenergy growth to remain in place.

AB 222 passed the California Assembly with flying colors on June 1, 2009, by a vote of 54-13, after it was approved by a unanimous bipartisan vote of 11-0 in the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. In July, it was approved in the Senate Utilities, Energy and Communications Committee, and since is awaiting action in the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality which elected not to act on the bill.

Overall, AB 222 corrects scientifically inaccurate definitions and antiquated provisions in the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, and thus enables and expedites the in-state production of advanced, nonfood-derived biofuels and green power from biomass through new nonincineration technologies such as gasification, fermentation and pyrolysis. Despite receiving support from more than 80 major statewide associations, state and federal agencies, electric utilities, waste management firms and renewable energy industry groups, the SCEQ has not taken action on it.

AB 222's newly gained support is evidenced in a letter sent to SCEQ Chair Joe Simitian, signed by the Vice Chair of the California Energy Commission (and chair of the governor's Interagency BioEnergy Task Force) Jim Boyd; Director of CalRecycle (formerly known as the Integrated Waste Management Board) Margo Reid Brown; and Chairperson of the California Air Resources Board Mary Nichols.

Urging support for AB 222, the letter said the bill would assist California in meeting state renewable energy and low-carbon fuel goals. Particularly, it will enable electricity produced from biogenic waste streams-the stream left over after waste is sorted for recycling-to qualify as renewable energy under the state's renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which is set for 20 percent by the end of 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

Implementation of California's ambitious Low Carbon Fuel Standard was approved in January and requires the reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels used in California by an average of 10 percent by the year 2020. Reid, Brown and Nichol's letter states that new conversion technologies would assist in developing local fuel sources as part of the LCFS and as it is implemented additional sources for producing low-carbon fuel will be needed to meet the increasing demand.

AB 222 would also remove current statutory restrictions that require thermal conversion projects to have zero emissions, a standard required of no other energy generation technology or manufacturing process in the state, and it effectively precludes any municipal solid waste conversion technologies from qualifying for the state's RPS, according to the letter.

Jim Stewart, AB 222 advocate and chairman of the Bioenergy Producers Association, said the letter is a powerful endorsement as the three agencies rarely combine to publicly support legislation. He said traditional recycling methods won't be effective enough to control mounting waste, especially with the rapidly growing population. "In 1989, California passed a mandate for 50 percent recycling, and in that year we landfilled 40 million tons of waste," he said. "In 2008, we were supposedly at 58 percent recycling in California, but yet we still landfilled 40 million tons of waste. That means that after 20 years of effort-from increased population and per capita disposal-we have not reduced the amount of material we are putting in landfills. Over the next 20 years, we expect to put another 800 million tons of material [post-recycling], into California landfills if we don't provide new tools and new methods to dispose of the materials. That's what this [AB 222] is about-we can't achieve zero waste without having new technologies."

The way legislation is currently written, if a municipality provides waste (residuals left over post-recycling) to a bioenergy producer who converts it to biofuels or electricity, it counts as disposal-just as it would if that same material was sent to a landfill. "For example, if you take green waste or biosolids and you send it to a landfill for use as a daily cover, you get credit as waste diversion, not as waste disposal," Stewart said. "If we take the same material and make biofuels from it, it counts as waste disposal as though we put it into a landfill. If landfill biogas is combusted to make electricity, credit is granted under the RPS, but if you take the same waste and convert it to fuel or electricity using a new technology it doesn't qualify as renewable energy even though it's made from exactly the same feedstock that's put into the landfills. AB 222 would correct some of these illogical rules."

Stewart also noted that AB 222 would correct a scientifically inaccurate definition of gasification, which is fundamental to all new thermal technologies. "California has a definition which requires zero emissions from the entire production process," he said. "That means not only zero from the disposal and destruction of waste, but zero from the biorefining aspect as well. There are no oil refineries or electrical generation plants in the state that could have been built if they required zero air emissions; it's not even minimal or meeting the highest standards, but zero. When the statute was passed back in 1989, these new technologies hadn't even begun development."

Stewart recommended that the public write the California Committee on Environmental Quality and demand that AB 222 be passed. "We need to grasp and realize the immense importance of this issue," he said.

To learn more about AB 222, visit