During the past five years, over 4.5 million acres of California forests have been impacted by wildfire. Costs to suppress these wildfires have averaged approximately $1.2 billion per year. Many predict increasing size and severity of fires unless increased forest restoration treatments are implemented. These treatments will involve removing the excess biomass ‘fuel’ built up in the forests, which reduces the severity and scale of wildfires.
In this context, forest biomass consists of small-diameter woody material, damaged or low-valued trees, the branches (slash) and diseased or insect infested wood, not suitable for other commercial use. This material represents a huge untapped resource for the generation of heat and power and its removal will improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Additionally, use of biomass materials to generate energy is another way to maximize the greenhouse gas reduction benefits the forest sector can provide. Burning the biomass in a controlled biomass facility instead of open burning can reduce emissions of CO by 98 percent. This can be true even when accounting for the emissions created by the transport and processing of biomass to create energy.
In order to create a new economic model that supports forest fuel reduction and wildfire mitigation, the forest biomass generated as a byproduct of forest restoration activities must generate sufficient economic value to cover the costs of collection, processing, and transport. Recent innovations in biomass energy technology provide an opportunity for the economically and environmentally sustainable use of that material to create renewable energy for California while at the same time protecting the state’s valuable forests and the region’s communities, from large damaging wildfire. Development of additional biomass power generation facilities in the Sierra Nevada Region that utilize forest waste would provide a ready market for biomass removed as a byproduct of forest restoration activities.
These issues are being addressed at the state-wide level. A 2012 California Bioenergy Action Plan was released in August. The Bioenergy Action Plan includes a broad array of action items related to the promotion of forest bioenergy. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) is identified as one of the key responsible agencies for these action items, particularly as regards to outreach and assistance to stakeholders and assisting collaborative efforts related to the development of community scale forest bioenergy facilities, as identified below:
- Work with stakeholders and expand the forest biomass collaborative to identify and promote small-scale forest biomass projects that reduce fire hazards, restore healthier, more resilient forests, provide renewable energy, and promote rural economic development.
- Update research on Bioenergy utilization co-benefits and quantify the cost-benefit of biomass use.
- Coordinate the Biomass Working Group, a collaborative of agencies, stakeholders and technical experts, to:
- Refine criteria for “community-scale” biomass energy facilities, identify candidate projects, and seek developers and cost-share for deploying and demonstrating commercial and emerging community-scale bioenergy technologies;
- Provide input to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and others on ratepayer and other benefits of converting forest biomass to energy; identify areas where additional research is needed, and coordinate with and/or secure funding from state agencies, private and federal sources, Western Governors’ Association or others for this purpose; and,
- Identify and seek private, state, including public interest research, and public goods charge, and federal funding for feasibility studies, pilot and demonstration projects, and research to support community-scale biomass utilization projects.
- Develop screening criteria to help local agencies determine the applicability of community scale woody biomass technologies and projects in their communities.
- Pursue Federal Funding Opportunities for Bioenergy: State and Federal agencies will coordinate to identify and pursue opportunities for federal research, development, and commercialization of Bioenergy facilities, including funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and other federal partners.
Since the Bioenergy Action Plan was published, legislation regarding forest biomass has been signed into law. Senate Bill 1122 (Rubio, Chapter 612 Stats. 2012), adds new benchmarks for the development of small scale forest biomass projects. It requires the state’s electrical corporations to collectively purchase 50 MW of generating capacity from new small scale (3 MW or less) bioenergy projects using byproducts of sustainable forest management in fire threat treatments areas.
Senate Bill 1122 adds new urgency to the SNC’s responsibilities under the Bioenergy Action Plan by adding an additional 50 MW of forest biomass from at minimum of 16 new facilities in the next 10 years. This will take a concerted and coordinated effort and SNC is prepared to continue playing a lead role in the development of forest Bioenergy facilities in the Sierra Nevada Region and other areas of California.