Waste equals food. At least that’s what we were taught in ecology class. In the eyes of California’s Bioenergy Interagency Working Group, organic waste equals something a bit more 21st-century: low-carbon biofuels, biogas, and renewable electricity. In its 2012 Bioenergy Action Plan, released on Wednesday, the working group lays out a plan to convert more of the state’s considerable wood, forest, agricultural, food, yard, and animal wastes directly into energy through anaerobic digestion, biomass burning, landfill gas capture, and other technologies.
The plan, developed by representatives the California Natural Resources Group, the Department of Food and Agriculture, Cal EPA, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission, and others, lauds bioenergy in all its forms as a win-win-win. Though of course, it’s not that simple.
First, the logic goes, we can divert organic waste from the landfill (by weight, it represents nearly 60 percent of the material trashed each year in California) and move the state toward its new goal of recycling, composting, or source-reducing 75 percent of its solid waste by 2020. Second, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and farms caused by decaying organic matter by capturing it and converting it to usable energy. And third, we can increase production of all-important baseload (that is, not intermittent like solar and wind) renewable electricity in the state, continue to wean our buildings and vehicles off fossil fuels, and march ever toward — or beyond — California’s 30-percent-by-2020 Renewable Portfolio Standard.
On paper, it sounds fantastic. But accomplishing all that will be another matter. A handful of significant regulatory and economic roadblocks stand in the way, as the report acknowledges. So do environmental and human-health concerns — which the report glosses over — resulting in part from particulate emissions at biomass facilities and from the handling and processing of potentially hazardous wastes in municipal solid waste and sewage (which can be converted into biogas and electricity, such as at East Bay MUD’s Oakland treatment facility).
But the most contentious element of the working group’s plan is to clear debris from California’s forests — a process known as forest thinning — and burn it in biomass plants, both to reduce wildfire risk and to produce additional energy for the state. “Fire costs are well-known and increasing, fuel treatment is a proven strategy to reduce fire risks and impacts, and use of forest wastes in biomass facilities provides multiple benefits.” Yet one plus one plus one doesn’t necessarily equal three. As a KCET story on the Bioenergy Action Plan points out, a study published last year by Oregon State University researchers found that Northwest forests thinned for biomass energy released more carbon into the atmosphere than they saved by displacing fossil fuels.
It’s a critique that Ashley Conrad-Saydah, Assistant Secretary for Climate Policy with Cal EPA, has heard before. But she believes California’s approach will be carefully managed to avoid such an outcome. “There have been lots of papers on potential unintended consequences of burning forest biomass, essentially producing more greenhouse gases than reducing them,” she said. “We took many, many steps to address those concerns.”
Like what? Well, they’ve vowed to study impacts to make sure that won’t happen. The report acknowledges that “increased markets will promote more intensive harvest practices, resulting in unanticipated impacts,” then calls on state agencies to “define and ensure sustainable forest biomass utilization for energy.” That’s about it. One man’s trash may be another’s treasure, but the devil is still in the details.