‘Putting the forest first’: Nevada County residents, Sierra Business Council make the case for local biomass energy facilities
The technology, proponents say, allows for a cleaner energy source to produce electricity and stimulate local job creation with the benefit of enhanced forest resilience, improved watersheds and — maybe most notable — reduced wildfire risk.
The Sierra Business Council recently published a white paper promoting the idea that all of this is possible if Nevada County leverages an untapped resource: biomass energy.
“The scale of destruction witnessed in the wake of the Camp Fire in the fall of 2018 was a watershed moment, a canary in the coal mine as the state of California was thrust abruptly into an age of new normal,” reads the council’s report entitled, “Biomass in the Sierra Nevada: A Case for Healthy Forests and Rural Economies,” penned by Sierra Business Council Climate Analyst Simone Cordery-Cotter.
With the possibility for massive wildfires, the report states Northern California must find a way to make Sierra Nevada forests ecologically resilient, storing carbon (as “carbon sinks”) rather than emitting it through dying and dead trees and subsequent wildfires.
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This is notably not the first time biomass energy has been suggested in Nevada County.
In 2014, the volunteer-led Nevada County Biomass Task Force, promoted by chair Steve Eubanks, began obtaining grants for a biomass energy facility in Nevada County. In 2016, the task force selected a consultant to do a feasibility study on the potential plant.
Following Senate Bill 1122, Eubanks said the task force has been trying to establish a 3 megawatt facility, which would employ about six to nine people excluding processors and transporters. The task force has selected a site on La Barr Meadows Road at the southern edge of Grass Valley. The property is owned by landscaping supply store Rare Earth. According to a feasibility assessment, about 113,128 bone-dry tons of forest would be available to feed the possible biomass energy facility. Eubanks said a purchase agreement likely needs to be made before moving forward. If that passes, a site plan would need to be produced, allowing the facility to begin operations in about one to two years.
“We’re hopeful,” said Eubanks.
Eubanks said the Camptonville Community Partnership nonprofit is also looking to establish a biomass facility in the surrounding area.
And yet, with all the local momentum behind biomass energy, the technology has also been met with skepticism, particularly in the southeastern U.S.
That’s why the Sierra Business Council and some locals hope to integrate biomass energy facilities as new green technology specifically in Nevada County. Under specific conditions, they hope to utilize a novel economic mechanism — in tandem with other forest management techniques and renewable energy sources — to increase forest restoration, eliminate large-scale wildfires and provide 21st century jobs as the climate gets drier and hotter.
Biomass energy means taking residual material generated by agricultural or forestry work— like brush left over from thinning, wood chips or dead or damaged trees — and combusting it to create electricity from a biomass facility.
While biomass energy might not be a “sexy” topic like that of solar or hydroelectric power as the white paper notes, it nonetheless could be crucial to resolving Northern California’s forest management issue, where overcrowding forests, an excess of dead trees and a pine beetle “scourge” in concert with drier seasons has created a greater likelihood for out-of-control wildfires, thereby releasing a large amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Managing this issue exclusively with forest management services could cost upwards of $3 billion per year — excluding costs due to insurance losses from wildfires — and wouldn’t offer full restoration, according to the report. But some local experts believe it needs to be part of the equation for better managing our forests and lowering carbon emissions.
“The simple truth is that there isn’t enough state and federal money being made available for pre-fire forest thinning and restoration on the scale that needs to occur,” the report states.
The council’s report estimates that a total of 248 million bone-dry tons of forestry in High Hazard Zones (areas more ripe for wildfires) could be used toward biomass energy projects.
The possible benefits are numerous, but a few stand out, including a sturdier energy system, a healthier watershed, increased jobs and reduced carbon emissions, according to the report.
Biomass energy is a source of base-load power, meaning that it can be used at any time — as opposed to wind or solar. As such, if power is cut off and energy is not able to be stored through a different renewable energy source (like solar batteries), power can be turned back on when connected to a biomass energy facility — which occurred at the Greenleaf Honey Lake Power facility when the Camp Fire broke out in 2018.
A less dense, cleaner forestry will also allow for a healthier watershed, the white paper suggests.
Studies have demonstrated that “thinning 500,000 to 600,000 acres of forest can increase average water yield by 100,000 acres,” according to the report. As Cordery-Cotter said, more dead and dying trees near a watershed suck up nearby water, which means less water available for the general populace. As a metaphor, the report’s author said fewer trees means less brush around to mop up water like a sponge.
With additional thinning “we reduce the size of ‘the sponge’ and we reduce the capacity of ‘the sponge,’” said Cordery-Cotter.
The implementation of biomass energy facilities would also demand a corresponding workforce to create and operate the facility.
As an example, the report consistently references the Loyalton Biomass Facility, which has the possibility of treating 12,288 forest acres per year. Re-opening the facility in April of 2018 meant 21 full-time jobs filled in a community of 720 people, the report reads.
The report recommends that biomass facilities be installed about 70 miles from where brush is cleared and branches thinned to limit carbon emissions from transportation.
Although biomass energy is carbon-neutral over a long period of time (about 100 years), Cordery-Cotter writes that Loyalton’s emissions are quite low as it is due to strict state regulations.
“The emissions go through a dust collector, char section remover, and then a fan with an electrostatic precipitator – this means that 98% of the produced particulate matter goes into an ash bunker and is sold as an agricultural product for soil enrichment,” the report reads.
All of this doesn’t include the claimed clean energy benefits.
In comparison with open burning or anthropogenic out-of-control wildfires, Cordery-Cotter said the emissions profiles of biomass energy are disparate.
“Open burning is about five times as worse as combusting in a bioenergy facility,” she said.
“What you’re paying for is a protection for the resources being threatened by wildfire,” he said, adding that the wildlife habitat, forestry, water quality and water quantity are all improved.
“In a sense,” he said, “it’s an ecosystems service issue.”
In June of 2018, The Guardian reported on residents living near biomass facilities in Houston who have reportedly experienced increased respiratory problems. In 2017, The Natural Resources Defense Council referenced a study by Chatham House claiming that biomass is not carbon neutral. In March, Vox reported on how Europe’s biomass facilities have been working with American timber companies to cut trees mostly in southeastern America and then transport them to the continent, thereby increasing carbon emissions under the guise of ushering in a cleaner energy system.
Author and climate activist Bill McKibben recently excoriated the use of biofuels, and in 2018 William Moomaw, emeritus professor at Tufts University — and lead author on multiple Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports — signed a letter with almost 800 scientists pushing the European Union to move away from biomass use in its current form.
Cordery-Cotter’s response to such controversy was simple: keep the process local and emphasize the climate first.
“There’s a reason it’s called ‘Biomass Energy in the Sierra Nevada,’” she said. “We are not advocates for clear cutting forests and shoving them into massive steam boilers.”
The white paper, Cordery-Cotter said, is specific about its desires to see local biomass energy facilities and tight regulatory controls around them to ensure they aren’t emitting dirty particulates.
Eubanks noted that in the American south, companies are growing trees and burning pellets for the purposes of biomass energy — which would not be the case in Nevada County.
“We are utilizing material that is already being disposed of,” he said.
Additionally, forest biomass feedstock, said Cordery-Cotter, is much cleaner than the by-product of its agricultural counterpart, which occurs elsewhere in the U.S.
In general, the two believe the biomass industry must be driven not exclusively by profit — as has occurred in other spaces — but also with the goal of restoring the ecosystem.
“Our argument is forest first,” said Cordery-Cotter.
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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