California Boosts Bioenergy with Beetle-Kill

To combat the state's dead and dying forest problem, California Gov. Jerry Brown has called for 19 different initiatives, the majority of which are related to getting the materials to bioenergy facilities.
By Anna Simet | November 13, 2015

Several months ago, my colleague Ron Kotrba wrote a detailed article about the ongoing biomass power debacle in California. I highly recommend reading it, but to sum things up real quick for you, some plants in the state are having a very difficult time getting contracts renewed—contracts that were secured through PURPA in 1978—and, in the meantime, all of the fuel they take in has nowhere to go.

Couple that with California’s extremely dry conditions, on top of millions of acres of dead and dying trees highly susceptible to catching fire, and it’s a huge problem.

In fact, such a big problem, that California Gov. Jerry Brown just declared the situation a state of emergency. The declaration, interestingly, has an emphasis on getting that material to bioenergy facilities. Julie Malinowski-Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance, who is a source in the article I referenced above, has said that the declaration is a boost to the state's dwindling number of biomass electricity plants that would be able to take the dead wood.

And by dwindling, we’re talking 63 in the 1980s, and right now, probably less than 25.

Four years of drought have made trees in many regions of California susceptible to infestation by bark beetles, which healthy trees can normally fight off. In the proclamation, Brown says the U.S. Forest Services estimates there are 22 million dead trees. And tens of millions more likely to die off by the end of this year. A situation that California hasn’t seen in modern history.

Brown has called for 19 different initiatives to combat the problem, the majority of which are related to getting the materials to bioenergy facilities. He has directed:

*The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, California Natural Resources Agency, California Department of Transportation and California Energy Commission to begin identifying the most hazardous zones in the state for wildfires and falling trees as well as efforts to remove and store them.

*The California Public Utilities Commission to utilize its authority to extend contracts on existing forestry bioenergy facilities receiving feedstock from high hazard zones.

*The CPUC to take expedited action to ensure those contracts are executed within six months,  to prioritize facilitation of interconnection agreements for forest bioenergy facilities in high hazard zones, and use of expedited mediation or other alternative dispute resolution processes when conflicts delay development of projects.

*The CPUP to prioritize grant funding from California’s Electric Program Investment Charge for wood biomass-to-energy technology development and deployment.

*The California Department of Forestry and other appropriate agencies to work with land managers to estimate biomass feedstock availability, storage locations and volumes that are available to use at existing and new bioenergy facilities.

*The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and CEC to work with bioenergy facilities that accept forest biomass to identify potential funds to help offset higher feedstock costs.

Hopefully, these initiatives will not only help mitigate a serious environmental and safety issue in California, but also help get the bioenergy industry back on its feet. Time will tell.