California boasts that policies adopted here are forward-thinking and should be adopted elsewhere — regardless of whether they are on-point or not.
The California Air Resources Board, California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Energy Commission recently issued its first Joint Agency Report required under 2018 (Senate Bill 100). SB 100 was designed "to assess barriers and opportunities to implement the 100% clean electricity policy" and is intended to be a blueprint for how California can meet its ambitious clean energy goals. However, the group went further by exploring "no combustion" alternatives, taking fossil and biomass-based power generation out of the model.
Biomass facilities are also a part of the fire prevention efforts not accounted for by the working group. Last year was the worst wildfire season in our state's history, with more than four million acres burned. A recent study found that pollutants from wildfires are up to 10 times as harmful to human respiratory health as particulate pollution from other sources. After recently touring a biomass facility, it is without question a massive benefit to what Californians expect us to do with our forest byproducts while improving air quality.
While there have been legislative and societal pushes to move away from fossil fuels, the same is not true for biomass. In fact, when modeling a future with no combustion resources, the agencies failed to consider several factors.
First, the SB 100 Report failed to take into account the environmental benefits of biomass facilities. While seemingly counterintuitive, California's biomass facilities lower overall emissions. The facilities use the best available control technology to remove harmful pollutants when converting woody biomass into power. The alternative is an open-field burn or, worse, a catastrophic accidental or nature-driven wildfire.
The SB 100 Report assumes that leaving the woody biomass means that there are no emissions. However, according to California's environmental agencies, converting forest or agricultural waste to energy cuts the most harmful climate pollutants by 98 percent compared to an open-field burn or wildfire alternative. That waste can be recycled into a carbon-negative fuel, cutting pollution even more.
Now, some may argue that there are other alternatives for woody biomass. Realistically, there is not much of a market for wood waste, as evidenced when no biomass facilities are present. As one California air pollution control district noted, the number of open burns tripled after a couple of biomass facilities closed. If we move away from open burns, the need for biomass facilities intensifies.
In a recent pronouncement, Governor Newsom has budgeted more than $2 billion for fire prevention, including fuel breaks, forest health, and home gardening. As the dead trees and vegetation are removed from our forests, biomass facilities become invaluable to dispose of the wood waste because the principal alternative is open-field-burning. Unfortunately, the SB 100 Report does not consider converting forest waste to energy as an important option to meet the state's climate and air quality goals.
In addition to the environmental costs, the SB 100 Report shows the no combustion model has reliability and financial constraints. The working group admits the no combustion model falls short when biomass is removed. That runs counter to the state's ability to reach its 60% renewable portfolio goal as well as the 100% clean energy goal. The Report further states that with the retirement of all combustion sources and the increased capacity needed, the annual cost increase is $8 billion, or about 12 percent, compared to the SB 100 Core Scenario, proving that if you remove existing, proven technologies for alternative technologies it only adds to the costs. So, that's using science and math.
As the working group moves forward, it needs to look at all of the costs and benefits of meeting California's energy goals. By taking this approach, the three agencies will realize what most agricultural and forested areas know - Biomass energy provides multiple ancillary benefits from air and water quality to wildlife habitat to fire prevention and employment, which are crucial elements of the fabric of California's rural communities.
June 25, 2021 Record Searchlight