California Powers Up Plan for Waste-to-Watts

Energy from trash and fewer catastrophic fires? What’s the catch?

A wood-burning power plant in Northern California. In 2007, "biomass" energy accounted for roughly 2.1 percent of California energy production. A new state bioenergy plan seeks to substantially increase that percentage.

Wood scraps, animal manure, household garbage and other wastes may soon fuel a sweeping “clean energy” initiative in California, if the collective vision of several state agencies comes to pass.

This week, the state announced its 2012 Bioenergy Action Plan [PDF], which promotes an array of organic materials as a large and untapped fuel source for an energy-hungry state.

“Swift action on bioenergy will create jobs, increase local clean energy supplies, and help businesses grow in California,” said resources agency secretary John Laird in a Department of Natural Resources release. Currently, the bioenergy sector employs roughly 5,000 people and contributes $575 million to the state economy; the agency estimates the new plan could create an additional 4,000 jobs statewide.

The 2012 plan, a collaboration among eight agencies including the Natural Resources Agency, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), is the latest in a string of initiatives meant to jumpstart the California bioenergy industry. In 2006, the state released its first bioenergy plan, after then-governor Schwarzenegger signed an executive order requiring the state to establish:

“…targets for the use and production of biofuels and biopower and [direct] state agencies to work together to advance biomass programs in California while providing environmental protection and mitigation.”

A bioenergy source touted in the 2012 plan are so-called anaerobic digestion systems, which harness anaerobic bacteria to break down organic wastes. The California Energy Commission points to a farm in Tulare, which recaptures methane, or natural gas, released as anaerobic bacteria break down vast piles of hog manure. Enough gas is reportedly generated to drive two gas power plants that produce enough electricity for the entire farm.

Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott sees bioenergy not only as way to diversify California’s energy portfolio but also a means to reduce the likelihood of large forest fires, such as those currently burning in the state’s northern half. “Generating energy from forest waste helps to reduce dangerous fuel loads in our forests while providing jobs and local energy supplies in forest communities,” said Pimlott in the release.

Heaps of wood along with agricultural scraps and municipal garbage can be fed into waste-to-energy or “biomass” plants. One facility highlighted in the plan is the Wheelabrator Shasta Power Plant, near Anderson, which consumes around 750 million tons of “forest residue” and wastes from local mills to generate 49 megawatts of energy. According to the California Energy Commission, at the biomass industry’s peak in the state, there were 66 biomass plants producing 800 megawatts of energy a year — roughly the generating capacity of one large gas-fired plant.

Critics say wood-burning plants may have an adverse effect on the atmosphere in the short term, since burning wood releases carbon more rapidly than under natural conditions of decay. Others assert the plants are really a veiled push for increased logging and, in the long-run, may end up competing for harvested wood used for construction or paper manufacturing.

But biomass boosters, such as  Plumas County supervisor Robert Meacher, say proof of the need to tap the state’s vast stores of “woody renewables” is lingering in the air over Northern California.

“You can cut the smoke with a knife in the northern Sierra right now,” Meacher told me as he drove from the front lines of one of the large fires burning in his county. “I would submit that by the time these fires burning in northern California are out, it will negate all that we are trying to do under AB 32 for the calendar year.”

California Powers Up Plan for Waste-to-Watts 23 August,2012Jeremy Miller

2 thoughts on “California Powers Up Plan for Waste-to-Watts”

  1. Critics who are concerned about forest based biomass need to understand that when we say “forest residues” we are talking about branches, snags, duff (pine needles) and things that would never be commerically valuable timber (ie, full grown trees) but which greatly increase the likelihood of intense crown fires when not removed from the forest on a regular basis. This is not a veiled plan for increased logging, and if you read the plan that is plainly clear.

  2. We should be moving to small local biochar plants, which fracture woody biomass to create biofuels and, in addition, sequester carbon.

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Jeremy Miller

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News, and his stories have appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Orion, Men's Journal, Earth Island Journal, The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine. He currently lives in the East Bay with his wife, Emma, and children, Deirdre and Owen.

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