Biomass and Bioenergy

CAL FIRE's mission includes protecting the long-term health and productivity of forestlands through timber harvest regulation, landowner assistance in the form of grants, education and technical support, and protection from wildfire. Healthy forests provide wildlife habitat; protect watersheds, water supply and water quality; and provide wood products, recreational opportunities and other valuable ecosystem goods and services.

Stewardship and management to maintain or restore healthy forest conditions is critical to this mission. This is especially true in the wildland urban interface, where communities are within or adjacent to forested landscapes, and in the face of predicted increases in wildfire due to climate change. Management treatments, such as fuel hazard reduction and thinning, can generate significant amounts of woody "biomass".

Forest biomass, generally defined as organic vegetative material, is primarily the excess trees and shrubs that would not be otherwise used for higher value commercial products or needed for environmental protection values. Biomass can be used for a variety of products, including composition wood products, paper, compost, bedding materials, crates and other products. It can also be used for generating electricity, providing heat and producing biofuels. Sustainable forest biomass utilization can provide environmental, economic and social benefits.

Utilization of forest biomass for bioenergy can benefit the state in several ways.

  • Renewable green energy: Biomass can be utilized for renewable energy to reduced reliance on fossil fuels. California's Renewables Portfolio Standard requires utilities to increase renewable electricity to 33% by 2020.  The Governor's Bioenergy Action Plan states that biomass-fueled electricity generation will constitute 20% of the Renewables Portfolio Standard by 2010.
  • Climate change mitigation: Use of biomass energy in lieu of fossil fuels reduces greenhouse gases.  Biomass utilization also provides a disposal alternative to open burning and landfills for forest treatment wood wastes.
  • Forest health and wildfire protection: Forest restoration, thinning and fuel hazard reduction activities, which generate biomass for energy use, create more resilient forest stand conditions.  These actions can reduce the amount and severity of wildfires, damages to life, property and natural resources, air quality and public health impacts from wildfire smoke, and fire suppression costs.  They also encourage more rapid growth on the remaining trees, resulting in bigger and more robust trees.
  • Habitat protection: When conducted appropriately, biomass harvesting has a negligible impact on wildlife and watersheds, improves growth of larger trees, and can protect habitats by enhancing the resilience of forest stands and individual trees to natural ecosystem disturbance.  
  • Contributions to rural economies:  Biomass utilization can create jobs in rural economies that were once dependent on traditional resource-based industries.  These include forestry jobs in the woods, and employment in waste disposal, facility construction, and biomass energy facility operations.
  • Climate adaptation:  Climate scientists predict substantial increases in wildfire frequency and acreage burned.   Restoration, thinning and fuel hazard treatments are a key adaptation strategy to make forests more resilient to increasing frequency of climate-related disturbances.

Challenges and Opportunities to Using Biomass For Energy

Despite potential benefits of biomass utilization, various challenges persist to the maintenance and development of biomass-to-energy utilization.   One of the greatest challenges to developing bioenergy from woody biomass is that current market-based pricing mechanisms for electricity, transportation, and waste management do not fully cover the cost to collect and transport biomass feedstock to the site of utilization.  Pricing mechanisms also have not adequately monetized the nonmarket benefits to local communities and the state described above.   The complexity of regulatory requirements continues to inhibit financial investment in bioenergy development and distributed energy projects. Electric grid and natural gas pipeline interconnection challenges also must be addressed. Finally, public concerns about scale and sustainability of new facilities may create barriers to local community support of biomass facilities.

Public policies and programs should recognize and monetize the multiple benefits of biomass utilization, ensure an even playing field for renewables, and provide incentives and support for research, demonstration and commercialization of woody biomass facilities.   Technological improvements are needed in feedstock harvesting and transportation to reduce energy costs per unit, and in second and third generation technologies to improve on energy efficiency.  Solutions should also include interagency cooperation on regulation, facility siting and permit streamlining where appropriate, and collaborative efforts to define, demonstrate and monitor environmental, economic and social sustainability. 

CAL FIRE is working with state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and a broad group of stakeholders to develop policies and programs that support utilization of woody biomass for energy and demonstrate sustainable biomass harvest and utilization practices.  We also collaborate with federal and local agencies and landowners to implement strategic community and landscape level forest health and fuel management treatments across ownerships, which will generate biomass for energy use.   

On the ground activities for 2012 include implementation of the final round of Proposition 40 Funds to assist small private landowners in the Sierra with forest improvement and wildfire hazard reduction projects to reduce fuel loadings that pose a threat to watershed resources and water quality.  CAL FIRE also will provide over $350,000 in grants to landowners through the U.S. Forest Service Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act to reduce wildfire hazards, using biomass utilization methods.  The projects will focus on high wildfire threat areas and will assist with delivering biomass to energy facilities with long chip delivery distances.

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