The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) is considering what role biomass should play in Humboldt’s energy future. RCEA’s decision was prompted by the community’s proposal, supported by EPIC, to require that 100% of our power come from clean, renewable energy by 2025. RCEA will be examining the future of biomass at a special forum at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center this Friday (10/18) from 1-4pm. EPIC encourages our members to attend and let their opinions be known. (But if you can’t make it, we will take notes and keep you up to date on the topic.)
Biomass in Humboldt is a complicated subject, largely because most of the scientific literature is from elsewhere and the particulars of our biomass production is unique. Here, nearly all of the fuel stock comes from “mill waste,” the chips, sawdust, and unmerchantable wood that is a leftover from timber production.
From the narrow perspective of utilizing a “waste” product, biomass as it exists makes some sense: we are able to put to economic use something that would otherwise cost money to dispose of. But biomass is not “clean” in the ordinary sense. Through combustion, biomass produces, among other things, fine particulate matter, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone, dioxin, benzene and formaldehyde. These are often released in amounts rivaling or exceeding other combustion-based energy production, like coal power plants. And biomass also produces greenhouse gases—and in large amounts. (There while there is a scientific debate over whether the total carbon saved through forest sequestration outweighs the carbon emitted in burning, it is also clear that this is based on the long lives of forests. In the immediate term, biomass produces a sudden pulse of carbon that was once safely stored in the wood. If we have a short time to turn our emissions around before running off a climate cliff, these immediate impacts, even if balanced against long-term savings, are deadly important.)
What to do? Biomass is burned because it can return some value for what would otherwise be a waste product. If we change the economics—that is, if we can utilize that same biomass for a higher and better use—we can both provide a better market for forest products and sequester the carbon imbedded in that biomass. We could create new timber products, either by more efficient utilization of raw logs or by creating secondary product markets, like chipboards. Doing so would not only put that embedded carbon to a high and better use, creating more value for timberland owners per tree, but it could also better sequester that carbon, and could work to fill timber demand, resulting in a less overall logging. A triple win. Or we could create new biomass plants that produce some heat/energy and creates biochar, which can be sold as a soil amendment.
But this future isn’t possible without vision. RCEA should utilize its purchasing power to provide both a carrot and stick to get Humboldt moving into the future. The worst case scenario is that we just do more of the same: continue to subsidize old and inefficient biomass plants at the expense of taxpayers health and wallets.