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Butte County could be model for biomass, co-generation, experts say – Chico Enterprise-Record

CHICO — Butte County could be in a place to be a leader in biomass and co-generation for California.

Considering the role that biomass and co-generation has in a state where wildfires consumed more than 4 million acres so far this year, advocates says co-generation is the most environmentally friendly option that faces this charred state.

The are so many factors that align in Butte County that it’s almost ironic. Some of the most unfortunate blows that Butte County has experienced could be its most promising factors moving forward.

From burned timber from the Camp Fire and now the North Complex, and undergrowth loaded forests, there is feedstock for biomass incinerators.

Biomass is the woody material of which forests are made, but it also includes agricultural waste like prunings, and urban waste like green waste, pallets or waste construction wood.

There is also the future need to deal with fuel-overloaded forests that won’t be going away. One biomass advocate called the forests “a book of matches waiting to be lit” as to the fire danger. The goal of the Shared Stewardship agreement between California and the U.S. Forest Service is to target “treating” one million acres of forests per year for 10 years, which includes thinning.

Butte County is a place with plenty of rural areas covered in trees, smack next to dense residential areas. And there is the need for jobs.

Not to be forgotten is the existence of a nonworking but present cogeneration plant in Oroville.

Electricity

The capper could be the discussions focusing around the Community Choice Aggregation, which means counties like Butte and communities like Chico and Oroville have signed on to an agreement to buy power from a source other than PG&E.

Co-generation is the burning of woody material to create a force to turn a generator and produce power. It can be the heating of water into steam to turn the generator, or the production of a gas by burning material to turn the fins.

There was a time when California was home to more than 60 co-generation plants, which took in feedstock from their immediate areas. Today, about 35 remain, according to the California Biomass Energy Alliance.

Part of the demise was the push-back from environmentalists about harvesting forests, but the crumbling exploded with the deregulation of the energy industry, which took away subsidies and guaranteed contracts to co-generation plants, according to Julee Malinowski Ball of the alliance.

That resistance to co-generation remains today, including some environmental opposition, along with consideration of cost and air quality, Ball said. Air quality experts have some concerns about combustion pollution from burning biomass, but Ball said the flip side is the emissions and air quality during wildfires.

The benefits

The arguments in support really outweigh concerns, according to Steve Frisch president of the Sierra Business Council which earlier this year released a report on biomass as a multi-level tool.

In so many ways, biomass is exactly what’s needed throughout California, although much — mostly financial costs — stands in its way, he notes.

Investing the money at the front end means clearing the forests and doing away with the underbrush and substandard trees, rather than investing in firefighting at the back end.

Benefits, according to Frisch include reduced air pollution, growth-containing but not damaging fires, watershed protection from post-fire debris pollution, and protection of human life, assets and communities.

The council supports prescribed burns, along with mechanical or hand thinning, but there is so much lost ground to make up in California, that it needs a mammoth vision, says Frisch.

California in its era of megafires that destroys resources, land and human lives is ready for the vision, he believes. Co-generation is one tool to reduce that forecast and the cost, but it will take extensive legislation and a common vision of its benefits, he believes.

The Sierra Business Council covers the Sierra Nevada from Lassen to Mariposa counties, with an outlook including an environmental, economic and business focus.

Biomass

Angela Casler of Red Bluff, who teaches sustainability at Chico State, believes the time is right for biomass and co-generation. She lost her Paradise home in the Camp Fire, and has watched as Paradise works to recover and hauls away tons of burned trees. She believes there’s enough synergy to reopen the state’s closed co-generation plants, and would like to see more discussion of that possibility.

“I support biomass as an important part of California’s energy mix.”

New job

In a first of its kind, the Butte County Fire Safe Council is looking for someone to fill the new position of fuel reduction: timber and biomass manager. The part-time position is being paid for by a Cal Fire grant and is designed specifically to deal with biomass left from the Bear/North Complex fires.

That person will be helping fire victims establish their tree-related situation, what steps can be taken, and then will work with the forester and timber operators to make sure the process goes smoothly, council executive director Cali-Jane DeAnda said. It’s also hoped this person has some insight into “the bigger solution.”

“There are three unburned ridges in Butte County and the rest of them have been burned. We have to figure out how to help the burned areas, as well as the unburned ones,” DeAnda said.

She noted that the untouched ridges are home to vegetation and forests that haven’t burned for 100 years or more, making them targets for high-intensity and damaging blazes.

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno noted that tree contractors clearing areas from the Camp Fire did take burned logs and chipping to the co-generation plant in Anderson, called Wheelabrator.

Money

The key, according to the Biomass Alliance’s Ball, is the money.

Using the closed Pacific Oroville Power Inc. in Oroville as an example, Ball said, without a contract to buy power, no lender will underwrite the funding needed to restore the Oroville co-generation plant, which was shuttered in 2012.

Another factor is the Community Choice Aggregation, which Butte County and Chico have signed on to, with Oroville recently joining. The governments see the program as a way to cut community power costs, while mixing up the sources of power.

PG&E will still manage the equipment and distribution of the power, but governments can choose other sources to reduce power costs to their areas.

Ball from the California Biomass Energy Alliance also notes that biomass burning can be used to provide power to the grid with more certainty than either solar or wind.

Ball notes that burning biomass can free up space at landfills that have been occupied by pruning scraps or stop pile burning in surrounding public and private forests.

Part of the challenge that both Ball and Frisch point out is physically getting the biomass out of the forests and to an incinerator, but that can be the basis of new workforces.

But “someone has to pay for getting the material removed,” notes Ball.

There is support for biomass subsidies as had previously existed in California before deregulation, but where the subsidies would come from is the question, Ball noted.

There could be more support with the recent agreement in California for one million acre treatment of forests per year.

Talking about post-wildfire burned forests, Ball notes that timber burned to a certain degree or laying on the ground for an extended time loses its value as merchandisable material.

“We’re probably the only ones left who want it,” said Ball.

Community decisions

Where Ball sees the industry going is regional adaptation.

The state isn’t telling a community to do it or not. That’s a community decision, she says. But it also comes down to what size facility is right for a community. A small one might be more expensive to run, but the community has to make the decision, said Ball.

“The state isn’t coming to save you. A community needs to pull itself together and a region too, and come up with a plan, identify gaps and then go to the state,” she said.

“Is Butte County prepared to put more money in it, like maybe a surcharge on waste management?

“Butte County has the willingness, has the infrastructure and has so much going for you right now,” she said.

Employment

Another overlooked possibility hatching in nearby forests and what’s ahead are the kinds of jobs and careers that can come from a different era of forest management.

Often forests bump against rural areas that have seen jobs flee or are undercut by state regulations, so this “new” industry could hold economic benefit as well.

Opportunities for community colleges in workforce training programs are surfacing, along with graduates of those programs, whose employment could range from the cutting, hauling, processing, all the way to forest monitoring and management, the Sierra Business Council’s Frisch says.

Information on co-generation and biomass available in the Sierra Business Council’s report “Biomass in the Sierra Nevada: A Case for Healthy Forests and Rural Economies” which is available on sierrabusiness.org. It was first published in November.

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