Local Biomass Decision Opens the Door to 100% Clean Energy

Woody biomass. Photo: Appropedia.
Woody biomass. Photo: Appropedia.

“What energy future do we want for Humboldt County?,” was the question faced by Community Choice Energy (CCE) board members at their December meeting. CCE was considering whether or not to increase the amount of biomass energy purchased from Humboldt Sawmills (formerly Pacific Lumber Company and Humboldt Redwood Company) and how long to extend the contract. Dropping biomass outright was not on the table. The existing transmission lines that bring electricity into the county can’t import as much as we use, and we currently depend on local biomass to make up the difference.

The board, which is composed of representatives from local governments and is administered by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), chooses Humboldt County’s energy mix. At its inception, the board “aligned with the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan maximizing the use of local renewable resources,” which meant prioritizing biomass. The RePower Plan, prepared by HSU’s Schatz Energy Center in 2013, proposed to increase the percentage of biomass energy in the county’s power mix to 40 to 55 percent by 2030. Until now, these principles have guided the CCE board’s decisions, and the portion of our electricity coming from biomass has increased from 12 to 26 percent. The board’s December decision not to increase the amount of biomass energy and to extend Humboldt Sawmill’s contract for just five years instead of 10 is a promising departure from this trajectory.

Our biomass plants are renewable but not clean. The stoker boilers are comprised of old and dirty technology that emit more pollution than coal burning plants. Complying with emissions standards, which at times these plants have failed to do, is no guarantee of clean air. Power plant emissions standards are based not on health but on what is technically achievable with their existing equipment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows power plants that burn wood to emit three to four times more pollution than plants burning coal.

Trump’s EPA deems biomass carbon neutral, but many scientists disagree. Regardless of long-term carbon balance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C makes it clear that we don’t have time for trees to regrow. The report, which outlines the consensus of the world’s foremost climate scientists, says the planet will warm over 1.5 C unless emissions drop sharply starting in 2020. The IPCC states that if we miss that deadline, removing carbon dioxide later may not cool the planet back down.

Another part of the carbon question is whether other fates for mill waste are worse. Three frequently-mentioned scenarios are not likely to actually happen. Open burning and dumping in landfills are both illegal. Mill waste doesn’t cause wildfires. Our plants don’t burn slash or thinned trees because transportation costs are prohibitive. Recycling is a realistic option already working elsewhere. In other parts of the northwest, mill waste is sold as mulch and composted. Both help keep carbon in the soil.

A lot can happen in the next five years. Onshore and offshore wind developers say wind energy could be up and running within that time. Expected transmission upgrades made to export power will also allow us to import, making dependence on local dirty energy a choice and not a necessity. Cheaper battery storage will make wind and solar available night and day. Coupled with these developments, the Community Choice board’s decision means we could reach 100-percent clean energy by 2025, but it’s not a done deal. There will be pressure to keep buying biomass and, because votes are weighted by population, the county’s representative to the board will have a disproportionate say. The work ahead: electing local officials who support 100-percent clean energy and getting the CCE board to adopt a plan and timeline.

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Wendy Ring is a member of 350 Humboldt and the producer of Cool Solutions, a syndicated radio show and podcast about climate action from the bottom up.