Potential biomass up in smoke
The catastrophic Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe sent potential biomass energy up in smoke as the fire consumed 3,000 acres of choked forests, according to forest experts.
Thinning the forests, as experts had urged, would have reduced the fire danger but also could have provided fuel to generate biomass energy – a potential “win-win” scenario.
Regulations and high costs continue to thwart biomass energy efforts, but proponents remain optimistic.
“Biomass energy is clean energy produced by burning organic material and converting the heat to electricity,” said Greg Morris, director of the Green Power Institute in Berkeley. “Burning wood to produce energy reduces air pollution by more than 90 percent compared to open-pile burning.”
In addition, energy produced from wood waste, or biomass, can spark industrial growth for rural communities as energy prices rise, according to the Sierra Business Council.
With state forests full of potential for burning up – or generating green energy – policy makers need to make a choice.
“You have the option, basically, to let it burn in the open or burn it to produce clean energy,” said Bob Mion, managing editor of California Forests magazine.. “Because it’s going to burn, no matter what.”
Trees are one of the greatest absorbers of carbon. “So when we have these large forests fires, they are one of the leading pollutants in the world,” Mion said. “If we harvest some of these trees, you reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The harvesting of biomass would create safer forests, provide reliable energy from a renewable resource and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Mion, Morris and others.
The potential for biomass energy is enormous. “Stocked with more trees than at any time in the last 10,000 years, many forests stand choked with excess fuels and are ready to burn catastrophically” Morris wrote in an article “Up in Smoke.”
The wood waste also can be used to create consumer products by grinding it up, said Brent Smith, president of Sierra Economic Development District.
“Biomass can be used to create an alcohol-based fuel, perfume, particle board, fibrous material for insulation and furniture,” Smith said.
Despite the potential, biomass energy production is at a standstill because of high production costs and regulations, he said
“The problem right now is availability,” Smith said.
Biomass is “in the forest, and we can’t get to it,” he said. “People who want to use it have to pay for crews to get the material. All of the distance cost drives up the cost of biomass. If you could create a biomass harvester, you would reduce travel cost.”
The district is working to gain access to power grids throughout Nevada County where portable biomass plants could help generate the electricity.
“We want to put together a system that will reduce the fire risk and create jobs,” Smith said. “This is a multi-win scenario, and with Nevada County having more than half the county in forest alone, it’s of tremendous interest.
“The key at this point is having the people who are environmentally minded working with people who are governmentally minded,” Smith said. “The South Lake Tahoe fire only emphasizes why these groups need to come together to manage the health of the forest.”
To contact Staff Writer Lindsey Croft, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4247.
• Biomass energy production reduces fire loads, provides rural economic opportunities and improves air quality, proponents say.
• Biomass plants exist in Plumas, Sierra, Placer and Tuolumne counties, providing 47 percent of the electricity supplied to the power grid by Sierra Nevada sources.
• Western states have the potential to supply 15,000 megawatts of energy from biomass by 2015.
• Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded grants to 46 projects for the production and marketing of biomass, biofuels and wind power – though none were located in California. More grants will be issued this year that focus on biomass.
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