George Boardman: Biomass energy struggles thanks to fickle officials who pick the winners |

George Boardman: Biomass energy struggles thanks to fickle officials who pick the winners

George Boardman
John Hart/ | The Union

While California’s large biomass energy plants are rapidly becoming America’s new industrial dinosaurs, smaller plants envisioned for western Nevada County and Camptonville are on track to become operational in the next couple of years.

The story of why big plants are failing and small plants still have a future is a cautionary tale of what can happen when political and economic currents change, and fickle government bureaucrats pick winners and losers.

Biomass energy plants, which use hyper-efficient furnaces to turn wood and other natural materials into electricity that is sold to public utilities, have been around since the ‘70s, backed by federal alternative-energy mandates and subsidies. Given the overgrown forests and wild lands that can provide an endless source of fuel for such a plant, you would think Nevada County would have embraced this technology decades ago.

But nobody got really serious about the idea until about 2009, when the Nevada County Biomass Task Force was formed to explore the feasibility of building such a facility. Consultants concluded in 2014 that a 3-megawatt biomass plant was highly feasible as long as the price of electricity generated by the plant is high enough to attract investors.

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The consultants, TSS Consultants of Rancho Cordova, calculated that a price of 14.5 cents per kilowatt hour would provide a 15 percent return on investment, sufficient to attract the $12 million to $15 million in private capital needed to build the plant. TSS was recently given a $250,000 contract to prepare an impact report and secure a conditional use permit for a plant in western Nevada County and a smaller one in Camptonville, a process that will take several months.

While that work progresses, three prospective developers will be negotiating with the owners of Rare Earth Landscape Materials on La Barr Meadows Road to build a 3 MW biomass plant at the site, according to Steve Eubanks, chair of the task force. The final deal may involve more than one of the developers.

Eubanks said small plants make economic sense because of legislation that requires public utilities to buy the power they produce and the use of carbon credits. Plants with a capacity of 3 megawatts or less get support from a program administered by the state Public Utilities Commission that requires public utilities to purchase 250 MW of power from bioenergy facilities, with 50 MW coming from forest biomass. The price utilities pay for the energy is set by a formula and is currently around 16 cents per KWH.

The state’s biomass plants with over 3 MW of capacity can use that kind of help. As the Los Angles Times reported recently: “The state’s biomass energy plants are folding in rapid succession, unable to compete with heavily subsidized solar farms.”

From a high of over 60 plants in the ‘80s, California’s biomass plants now number 26. The industry has contracted by a third since 2000, the victim of new discoveries of oil and gas that have the potential to make the U.S. energy independent, and the Obama administration’s embrace of solar and wind as the latest and greatest sources of renewable energy. A key subsidy expired in 2011.

“The contracts signed back in the ‘80s were 25-, 30-year contracts and, at the end of those contracts, everyone expected power and energy prices to be much higher than they are today,” said Jule Malinowski Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance.

“They definitely didn’t anticipate the world we live in today,” she said, adding that thanks to the low price of natural gas, large biomass facilities with expiring contracts are being offered 3 cents per KWH or less.

Advocates say we need to look at the benefits these plants provide beyond generating energy. They aid in fire prevention by providing an efficient means of disposing of dead foliage and underbrush, they help air quality by reducing open burning, and they can provide decent jobs.

In a effort to help save the industry, Assemblyman Brian Dahle co-sponsored legislation last year that would divert revenue — an estimated $74 million to $120 million a year — from California’s cap-and-trade program to large biomass plants in great financial need. The bill, AB 590, died in the Senate Appropriations Committee last fall.

“The idea behind AB 590 was to be able to do good forest management … while keeping facilities open and providing energy back to the grid,” Cheri West, Dahle’s legislative director, wrote in an email. The bill was designed to aid large plants, but all of them struggle to be competitive with solar and wind power without subsidies. “This is definitely a concern. Solar and wind are subsidized … so it makes their electricity more affordable. Biomass is not and historically costs more to produce.”

While biomass energy helps alleviate the fire danger caused by California’s overgrown forests, it also gives farmers in the Central Valley a clean way of disposing of the wood and other waste farms generate. This is particularly important in areas like Fresno, which has the worst air pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association.

But as biomass plants in the Central Valley shut down, there are fewer places to dispose of this waste. State bureaucrats usually turn their attention to the coastal power brokers, who are big boosters of wind and solar power, and have little interest in the problems of inland California. They should find a way to keep biomass in the mix if they truly value the health and well being of all Californians.

“Biomass is fantastic because it allows for a place for woody waste to be processed and turned into renewable energy,” West said. “We have several large facilities in our district, and are working hard to keep them up and running because once you shut it down they almost never start up again.”

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.

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