California bioenergy stymied without bill passage

By Anna Austin
Posted May 13, 2010, at 10:35 a.m. CST

A bill [AB 222] which would serve to 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. However, without the approval of at least two Democrats on the Senate on Environmental Quality Committee (SEQC), AB 222 will not reach the Senate floor and will die at the year's end, allowing many bioenergy growth barriers to remain in place.

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

Overall, AB 222 serves to correct scientifically inaccurate definitions and antiquated provisions in the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, and thus enable and expedite the in-state production of advanced, non-food derived biofuels and/or green power from biomass through new non-incineration technologies such as gasification, pyrolysis and fermentation. Despite receiving support from over 80 major statewide associations, state and federal agencies, electric utilities, waste management firms and renewable energy industry groups, the SEQC has not taken action on it.

AB 222's newly gained support is evidenced in a letter sent to the SEQC Chair Joe Simitian, signed by 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 Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board.

Urging support for AB 222, the letter says the bill would assist California in meeting state renewable energy and low carbon fuel goals. Particularly, it will enable electricity produced from the biogenic portion of the post-recycled waste stream-the stream leftover 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 (LCFS) was approved in January 2010, and requires the reduction of carbon intensity of transportation fuels used in California by an average of 10 percent by the year 2020. Reid, Brown and Nichols' 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. The way legislation is currently written prohibits such growth.

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

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 endorse legislation. He said that traditional recycling methods, by themselves, will never enable California to achieve zero waste, especially with the rapidly growing population. "In 1989, when California passed its mandate for 50 percent recycling, the state landfilled 40 million tons of waste," he said. "In 2008, recycling advocates claimed that the state had reached at 58 percent recycling, and yet we still landfilled 40 million tons of waste. After 20 years of effort- due to increased population and per capita disposal-the state has not been able to reduce the amount of material it is putting in landfills. During the next 20 years, unless new technologies and new methods of disposal are implemented, California will place another 800 million tons of post-recycled material into landfills. That's what this [AB 222] is about-we can't achieve zero waste without having new technologies to do it with."

The way legislation is written right now, if a municipality provides waste (residuals leftover post-recycling) to a bioenergy producer who converts it to biofuels or electricity, it counts as disposal-just as it would if that material had been sent to a landfill. "For example, if you take green waste or biosolids and you send it to a landfill for use it as a daily cover, you get credit as waste diversion, not waste disposal," Stewart said. "If you divert the same material from the landfill and use it as a feedstock for biofuels production, it counts as waste disposal. If landfill biogas is combusted to make electricity, credit is granted under the RPS, but if you interdict the waste before it reaches the landfill and use it to produce fuel or electricity, it does not qualify as renewable energy. AB222 corrects these anomalies by allowing the biogenic portion of the waste stream to qualify as a feedstock for the state's RPS and for advanced biofuels production under RFS2."

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 energy production process," he said. "That means not only zero from the disposal and destruction of waste, but zero from the biorefining process as well. No oil refineries or electrical generation plants could ever have been built in the state if they had to meet these standards; it's not minimal or meeting the highest standards, but zero. Twenty years ago or more, when the statutes that now govern conversion technologies were passed, these new technologies hadn't even begun development."

Stewart recommended that the public write to California's SEQC to express support for AB 222. "We need to realize the immense importance of this issue for energy independence, national security, an improved environment and economy, and low-cost liquid and electric energy," he said.

To learn more about AB 222, visit