Community Choice Energy and Local Biomass

November, 2016

Humboldt County is in the process of launching a Community Choice Energy program, with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) taking the lead. Other California communities, including Marin, Sonoma, and San Francisco Counties, are already operating such programs. Community Choice Energy (CCE) allows residents and businesses to buy their electricity through local government, using an energy supply mix that meets local community values.

Some key goals of CCE programs are to maximize use of local renewable energy, keep electricity prices at or below rates charged by the existing utility, and spur local economic development. For example, Sonoma County’s program is using geothermal power from the nearby Geysers energy facility, supporting local job retention through clean power production.

Here in Humboldt County, energy will eventually be drawn from a wide portfolio of clean energy sources, including solar, biomass, wind, ocean waves, and hydropower. Forest-derived biomass (mill waste, small diameter trees, shrubs, bushes, diseased trees, or materials from fuel hazard reduction thinning) is of special interest in the near term, as the resource is locally abundant and the county already has three bioenergy plants providing local jobs. These power plants burn woody material to make heat to boil water and the steam is used to make electricity. Other renewable energy technologies also have great potential, but they will take longer to bring on-line and in some cases may cost more than biomass power.

There are many important questions being raised about biomass energy. Is biomass really renewable? Is it low-carbon energy? Will it worsen our air quality? Will biomass energy drive increased logging? What about waste disposal? These environmental issues are raised alongside an interest in supporting local biomass jobs. RCEA is taking these concerns seriously and wants to communicate openly with the public as we choose an optimal power mix, now and in the future.

Renewability and carbon output—Bioenergy can be carbon neutral and renewable because standing trees pull carbon out of the atmosphere, sequestering the emissions from biomass plants. Sustainably managed forests can support this cycle indefinitely. In contrast, natural gas, which in 2015 still accounted for 44% of California’s electricity generation, is pulled from deep in the earth on a one-way trip to the atmosphere. Studies on the actual carbon neutrality of biomass power have come to a range of conclusions, in many cases dependent on local context. However, even when biomass energy is not fully carbon neutral, it can still be an appropriate choice if it is less carbon-intensive than the incumbent energy technology and reduces our reliance on fossil fuel powered energy.

 

Local air quality—Unlike open pile burning or wildfires, the emissions from biomass plants are passed through air-quality scrubbers. A study in the Pacific Northwest by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the fine particulate emissions from burning forest products in open piles are several times greater than the emissions from burning the same material in a standard biomass power plant, even when the emissions associated with trucking the biomass to a power plant are considered.

 

Biomass availability—Woody biomass can be sourced from mill waste (sawdust and chips) and existing forest management practices that target diseased, bark beetle-killed, and/or over-crowded forests prone to wildfire. A 2013 study by the California Biomass Collaborative (a UC Davis-based group representing government, industry, academic, and environmental stakeholders) shows that Humboldt County could support a sustained yield of 1.3 million bone dry tons of forest biomass per year, the highest amount for any California county. The current reality is that mill waste, which makes up just 20% of that countywide potential, is the only feedstock being used in significant amounts at local plants, as transportation of lower value material from the woods for energy production is not cost-effective. Researchers at Humboldt State University and elsewhere are working on solutions to this technical-economic problem.

 

As for the mill waste, local biomass plants play a key role in the sustainability of the whole forest products supply chain and the jobs that supply chain supports. Mill waste needs to be disposed of somehow, and the global environmental impacts of using it in local biomass plants (which offsets non-renewable, natural gas-fired generation elsewhere) are certainly less than those associated with trucking it out of the area for landfilling, while continuing to rely on fossil fuel-powered electricity.

 

Ash disposal—Ash from local biomass plants is applied to soils on local agricultural lands, where it is useful for regulating pH. This use of the ash is regulated by the state. According to staff at our local ag extension office, potential local demand for this soil amendment considerably exceeds supply, so safe local disposal of the ash is not foreseen as a problem in the near future.

 

Visit RCEA online at www.redwoodenergy.org or call them at 707-269-1700.