Biomass Power Could Help California's Dying Forests

Jan 5, 2016

Millions of dead trees in California create a huge risk of wildfire. It’s led Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency that will require utilities, power plants and state agencies to work together. Biomass power plants can create energy from those dead trees. But as Amy Quinton reports from Sacramento, biomass plants alone won’t solve the crisis.

At the unloading area at Buena Vista Biomass Power facility near Ione a hydraulic lift hoists a full size big rig up in the air at a 45 degree angle. Wood chips spill out the back of the truck into a gigantic bin. John Romena, the fuel procurement manager, says the 18 megawatt plant has more than a steady supply of forest waste.

Romena: “There is more capacity out there of fuel than there is for plant use.”

This pile of wood chips come from branches and small diameter trees that have been removed from forested areas near Lake Tahoe.
Credit Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Fuel normally comes from forest thinning projects, orchard prunings, or urban yard and construction debris. But now California has millions of trees that have died from drought, disease and wildfire. Romena says he constantly hears from landowners hoping to sell their trees.

Romena:  “A lot of the small landowners have material that is available that they can’t get rid of through the saw mills.  A lot of it is just being decked up in yards throughout several counties here.”

Despite the supply, 22 of California’s 50 biomass power plants are either idle or not-operating. Another nine could shut down between now and the end of next year – including Buena Vista. Utilities that have to buy renewable energy say the problem boils down to cost.

Lynsey Paulo: “Biomass is significantly more expensive than other renewable resources.”

22 of California's 50 biomass power plants are either idle or not operating.

  Lynsey Paulo is with PG&E, the largest buyer of biomass in California.

Paulo:  “It’s not that biomass got more expensive, what’s happened is that biomass has stayed flat and other renewable resources have actually come down in price.”

Prices for solar and wind power have dropped dramatically in the last five years. Biomass plants can’t compete even though they can provide power at all hours of the day. It leaves utilities with little incentive to renew biomass contracts says Steve Catemarti, the plant manager at Buena Vista.

 Catemarti: “They have only two choices and that’s to eat into what they have available for funds or charge a customer.”

Utilities don’t want their ratepayers to have to bear the cost.  The other problem is that it’s too expensive to get all the dead and dying trees to the remaining biomass plants. Catemarti says if negotiations don’t work out with a utility, his plant can’t afford to stay open.

Catemarti: “There’s roughly 25 positions that exist at the facility, but when you go to the outreaching jobs, it equals almost 150 to 200 per plant.”

"This is a statewide crisis for air quality, water quality, and climate change." - Julia Levin

  If more biomass plants shut down, it could cost more than just jobs. Julia Levin with the BioEnergy Association says there are huge environmental costs.

Levin: “If those facilities shut down, then we really only have two alternatives, one is to burn the waste, which is a huge air quality impact, the other is to landfill it, which has its own environmental impacts.”

Levin says one solution is to build more small scale biomass plants closer to the forest, which would reduce transportation costs. But connecting new plants to the grid is expensive for utilities. Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order is designed to address all these problems by asking the Public Utilities Commission to deal with what Levin calls a crisis.

Levin: “This is a statewide crisis for air quality, water quality, and climate change that the Governor was absolutely right in issuing this emergency order and I just hope that the state agencies really treat it like the emergency it is.”

Fewer than half a dozen of these small scale biomass plants exist. It’s estimated that more than 100 would be needed just in the Sierra Nevada.