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Other voices: Biomass: An investment for today and tomorrow

As you may remember, California suffered a severe energy crisis in 2000 and 2001 when rolling blackouts and unstable electricity prices left the state and consumers without power and paying exorbitant power prices. Many factors contributed to this mess, but one critical element was a dire lack of local energy supply. With low reserves and insufficient energy generation, California was forced to purchase electricity out of state at above-market prices.

California should never face such a crisis again. With careful and thoughtful planning, there are alternative energies that have been largely overlooked but can help contribute to meet a number of our state’s needs.

Forests cover the vast majority of the 3rd Assembly District. And in our forests, you have likely noticed the ever increasing undergrowth of brush debris and rotting trees. The tons of material on the forest floors create a tinderbox effect waiting to catch fire.



The U.S. Forest Service reports that 7.5 million acres of forest land in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range alone are highly susceptible to wildfire risk. Catastrophic wildfires due to mismanagement have proven progressively harder to contain and control. Not only is there the loss of life and property, but the fires create serious air quality problems for those who suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments.

For two months in the summer of 2004, wildfires burned more than 11 million acres in Alaska and Canada. Reports indicate that those fires released as much carbon monoxide into the air as all the cars and factories in the entire continental U.S. combined during just those two months. And when these forests burn at such heat intensity, they are lost not just for generations, but for centuries.




Our neglected forests, which presently offer fuel for catastrophic wildfires, could instead be used for constructive energy generation. There exists about 5 million bone dry tons of biomass available for collection and transportation as we speak, which could generate 400 megawatts of electricity. That translates into power for 300,000 homes for an entire year.

And biomass generation uses a variety of biological materials to generate electricity. Such materials include, of course, forest waste, but also switch grass, corn stalks, rice chaff and orchard prunings. These fuels are collected, converted into chips and transported to a facility. The material can be gasified, or the heat generated from the burning biomass can turn steam turbines which generate electricity.

Last spring, Gov. Schwarzenegger issued an executive order requiring the state to increase biomass-generated electricity by 20 percent by 2010.

The governor’s executive order on biomass comes at a time when investment in the biomass industry has seen considerable decline. In the early 1990s, there existed 62 operating power plants generating more than 900 megawatts of electricity. The industry then converted 10 million tons of biomass per year into producing 20 percent of the state’s renewable energy supply.

Since then, only 28 operating power plants are still generating – about 550 megawatts per year. The decline can be attributed to the changes made in our current electricity rate structure, which created prohibitively expensive processing and transportation costs discouraging biomass as an economic energy alternative.

Reversing this decline in biomass use will require deliberate planning. The governor has already asked numerous departments to perform studies and draft policies that could provide tax incentives and greater access to the forests to collect forest waste. Going deeper into the forests necessitates greater transportation costs.

How we ease transportation costs and allow greater access to forests to collect biomass remains a challenge for now, but one that we should seek to overcome.

The benefits of biomass are many: electricity generation, better forest management, fewer wildfires with their associated costs and significantly increased air quality, but like all technologies, biomass comes with challenges as well. As vice-chair of Utilities and Commerce, I look forward to working on a feasible way to increase the use of biomass as a multibeneficial solution to many of the state’s needs.

California Assemblyman Rick Keene represents the 3rd District, which includes Lassen, Plumas, Yuba, Nevada, Sierra and portions of Butte and Placer counties. He wrote this column earlier this year.


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