A smokestack at the north edge of Woodland spews a faint plume of gray. Below, heaps of wood chips, almond husks and fruit-tree trimmings lie strewn over the property while a conveyor belt moves the debris into a cathedral-sized facility. Inside, furnaces burn almost nonstop while 25 megawatts of electricity surges onto the power grid.
The Woodland Biomass Power plant is one of about 30 similar facilities statewide that produce renewable electricity from humans’ oldest fuel source: wood. Around the country and in much of the world, the industry has been promoted as an important clean energy solution to large-scale waste, since biomass facilities make use of millions of tons of wood scraps that might otherwise be set ablaze in open fields.
But the industry is embroiled in controversy. To many in the research and environmental justice communities, the term biomass has become a dirty word. The state’s biomass power plants, which produce about 600 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 450,000 homes — compromise air quality, increase atmospheric carbon and even threaten to consume wild forests, according to critics.
I’ve never seen another industry that believes its own propaganda as much as the biomass industry. ‘Clean and green’ has become the meme that the industry has relentlessly pushed — and people have bought it. Mary Booth, executive director, Partnership for Policy Integrity
Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says bioenergy — the electricity produced from biomass — has gained credibility mainly because it’s renewable, not because it’s a clean alternative to coal and oil. In fact, biomass power plants often produce more airborne pollutants — nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and carbon monoxide — than coal-fired plants of the same size. To opponents, the biomass industry represents a step backward in an age desperate for solutions to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.
“We want to get off fossil fuels but not with something that makes things worse,” Bundy says.
One of the central disagreements between the industry’s opponents and proponents is whether the bioenergy is carbon neutral — that is, causing zero net gain in atmospheric carbon. The industry has penciled through long calculations to demonstrate that toppling trees (which are essentially tall spires of sequestered carbon) and incinerating them creates no new carbon in the atmosphere. That’s because trees grow back, they say, balancing the equation. However, environmentalists counter that the math isn’t necessarily so simple. Biomass energy is only carbon neutral if the areas deforested for biomass fuel are replanted and the trees allowed to regrow to the same size as their predecessors. This, says Scot Quaranda with the North Carolina forest protection group Dogwood Alliance, does not always happen.
“It’s generally agreed that, at minimum, it takes 35 years of regrowing a forest to get you to carbon neutrality,” he says.
But the industry insists its practices are creating net social and environmental improvements — especially in terms of air quality. Much of the 8 million tons of woody debris that facilities burn each year is material that would probably burn in open fields if there wasn’t an energy-producing alternative. Since the smokestacks on a biomass plant include filtering apparatuses that can remove some pollutants from the emissions, the industry — which has helped to phase out open burning of agricultural waste — has been credited as an overall boon to California’s air quality.
“When you’re using feedstock [in a biomass plant] that would have been burned in the open, you’re getting a clear improvement in air quality,” says Kim Carr, the assistant deputy director for climate and energy with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Carr’s agency is behind a plan to build 50 megawatts’ worth of small biomass plants in the Sierra Nevada. Already, routine forest-thinning operations intended to reduce wildfire risk use open burning to eliminate debris. So, the plan is to divert this fuel source to biomass plants instead. The facilities would generate some electricity, create a few jobs and reduce emissions from open burning. The facilities would also be tiny; no bigger than three megawatts each. Such a small capacity, Carr says, would ensure the plants never out-burn the available forest trimmings and wind up looking for new feedstock, such as adult trees.
Still, skeptics are dubious, and with good reason. They point to America’s Southeast, where loggers are toppling adult hardwoods and pines and exporting them in the form of dehydrated wood pellets to the European Union. Here, a well-intended incentive program to develop renewable energy has spurred the appearance of biomass plants on a continent whose woodlands were largely felled and burned long ago.
Quaranda, at Dogwood Alliance, says the Southeast’s pellet industry first appeared under the premise that only wood scraps and trimmings from existing timber activity would be used to feed the European demand for biomass fuel.
However, trees as large as 24 inches in diameter are now being cut and rendered into wood pellets, according to Quaranda. The industry, centered along the Southeast and Gulf coasts, is growing and “has emerged as the No. 1 threat to the Southeast’s forests,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense that we’re cutting down our forests that we’re relying on to fight climate change, just to keep the lights on in Europe.”
But the problems developing in the Southeast are exceptional, according to Julee Malinowski Ball, the executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance. She says wild forests, under most circumstances, face no threat from the biomass industry because timber is usually far too valuable to be merely burned in power plants. “Even firewood gets a higher price
than biomass wood,” Malinowski Ball says, noting that only through powerful incentives and subsidies is shipment of American wood to Europe’s biomass plants economically feasible.
In California, the Central Valley is home to a disproportionate clustering of biomass plants, with seven crammed into the San Joaquin Valley alone. The facilities burn a great deal of farm waste. However, they burn an even larger quantity of urban wood waste pulled from construction and demolition sites in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. Such debris, amounting to a third of all the biomass fuel in the state’s industry, is often lathered with paints and polishes or lined with plastics. When incinerated, these materials can produce hazardous fumes and ash.
“If they’re going to burn it, they should burn it in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas,” says Tom Frantz, a Kern County teacher and activist who has been fighting the biomass industry since 2008. “The waste gets dumped on us because we’re a low-income area.”
Communities with less political leverage and communities of color tend to get stuck with the aesthetic and environmental blight of biomass plants, according to Cesar Campos, who works with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Campos’s organization regularly fields complaints about drifting plumes of pollution from residents in the towns of Delano and McFarland in Kern County. He says the Covanta Energy-owned facility in Mendota, 100 miles north in Fresno County, was fined for six pollution violations in August 2014 alone.
Part of Campos’s job is to visually assess the emissions from power plant smokestacks and report violations, which he says can be confirmed by the color and density of the fumes, to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. However, the industry’s regulators don’t always do their jobs, according to critics. The Partnership for Policy Integrity, an organization based in Massachusetts, released an 81-page report in April 2014 detailing how regulatory loopholes at the national level have allowed the biomass industry to repeatedly get away with producing more pollution than other industries. The organization’s executive director, Mary Booth, says that thanks to flimsy enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biomass facilities have become de facto dumping locations for wood laquered with paints and finishes — waste she says should be handled at disposal sites specifically for hazardous materials.
A Covanta facility in Oroville, for example, burned lumberyard scraps and sawdust for years until the local logging industry dried up. To keep operating, the facility eventually turned to urban waste. Requiring 28 tons of fuel per hour to generate 16 megawatts, the facility’s managers filled the furnaces with painted, lathered debris, creating dangerous fumes while company managers sold the toxic ash (called biochar) as soil amendments to farms. The facility was shut down in 2012, though sources say such behavior continues in other locations.
Coal power actually saved Europe’s forests, and the idea that we could now go back to bioenergy is extraordinarily incorrect. The problem is, you put ‘bio’ in front of anything and people think it’s better. Tim Searchinger, research scholar, Princeton University
There seems to be no straight story on biomass, as the industry’s proponents and opponents continually contradict one another. But there is at least one point both sides tend to agree on: Compared to oil, coal and solar panels, wood is a lousy energy source. It is largely water, and the energy output for a given volume of smokestack emissions is quite small. In fact, biomass is so poor at producing electricity that it’s usually considered cost-effective only if the materials are transported less than 50 miles. When wood is shipped longer distances — like, say, from Los Angeles to Kern County, or from the United States to Europe — it is financially feasible only with the assistance of subsidies or other financial incentives.
“Photosynthesis sucks,” says Princeton University researcher Tim Searchinger. Solar panels, he says, are hundreds of times more efficient at converting solar radiation into electricity than are biomass plants. Searchinger points out that much of Western Europe was deforested to fuel the region’s economies — and that was in a low-demand age.
“Europe’s energy needs in 1850 were 5 percent of today’s, and still they couldn’t be supported with forests,” he says. “Coal power actually saved Europe’s forests, and the idea that we could now go back to bioenergy is extraordinarily incorrect. The problem is, you put ‘bio’ in front of anything and people think it’s better.”
In California, laws similar in spirit to the European Union’s incentive program could potentially give a boost to the biomass industry. One of these laws, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, a program initiated in 2002 under Senate Bill 1078, requires utilities to draw 33 percent of their total energy procurement from renewable sources by 2020.
However, the industry is, for now, steadily withering away as biomass power plants, one by one, close down. Five facilities shut their doors in 2014, and industry players are scrambling to keep the fires burning.
The main problem is that biomass operations are expensive to run.
“Other power plants don’t have to buy sun and wind, whereas we have to pay for the fuel for our plants to run,” says Malinowski Ball.
Another 10 plants could shut down by 2020, according to Chris Trott, a managing partner with CT Bioenergy Consulting in Twain Harte. “Where’s all that wood [that they burn] going to go?” he says. “It’s going to be burned in the open.”
Trott warns California’s air quality will deteriorate if the industry isn’t given a boost through subsidies or legislation requiring utilities to purchase bioenergy.
But Booth says this is just propaganda.
“There has been such intense lobbying,” she says. “I’ve never seen another industry that believes its own propaganda as much as the biomass industry. ‘Clean and green’ has become the meme that the industry has relentlessly pushed — and people have bought it.”