[OPINION] Forest Biomass Utilization Combatting Catastrophic Wildfires

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “The Disconnect Between Myth and Reality in the Rim Fire,” by Chad Hanson, John Muir Project]

– by Julia Levin, Executive Director, Bioenergy Association of California & Tad Mason, Registered Professional Forester

California’s 2013 Rim Fire burned more than a quarter million acres; early estimates suggest that damage to the environment and property values could reach $1.8 billion. It destroyed wildlife habitat, released millions of tons of carbon emissions, and damaged key watersheds.

Sadly, catastrophic wildfires like the Rim Fire are increasing in frequency throughout the inland West. Land managers are very focused on proactive strategies to address the unnatural buildup of forest biomass. Forest thinning and hazardous fuels removal are important strategies to return forest landscapes to a healthier and more fire resilient condition. Utilization of this excess forest biomass as a feedstock for renewable power generation can provide a market-based solution that serves as an alternative to current biomass disposal techniques such as piling and burning or leaving biomass material on site.

Western forests are suffering from the combined impacts of past fire suppression efforts, development, and climate change, which is causing higher temperatures, reduced snow pack, invasive species and more intense weather events that trigger wildfires. Together, these factors are causing a perfect storm of weakened, combustible forests that lead to catastrophic wildfires. California has lost more acres to wildfire in the past five years than in the previous seventy years combined. In 2015 alone, California lost an area larger than the state of Rhode Island to wildfire. Other western states tell a similar story.

Catastrophic wildfires are not natural and not part of a healthy forest ecosystem. In the past, smaller wildfires played an important role in restoring forest ecosystems and stimulating new growth. Catastrophic fires, on the other hand, burn hotter and faster over more acres and destroy virtually everything in their path, making natural regrowth and restoration much more difficult.

Catastrophic wildfires are also huge climate, air and water polluters as they release enormous quantities of black carbon (soot) and other pollutants. In fact, wildfire now causes two-thirds of California’s black carbon emissions and ten percent of its total climate emissions. A bad wildfire season in the West can emit as much climate pollution as a state’s entire transportation or electricity sector does in a year. Catastrophic wildfires also threaten already scarce western water supplies as most of the West’s water originates in its forests as precipitation (snowpack and rain).

The current condition of California’s forests is so dire that in late 2015, Governor Brown issued a State of Emergency to address the nearly 30 million dead and dying trees due to bark beetles and drought. Among other steps to address the tree mortality crisis, the Emergency Order calls for increased capacity of biomass power generation facilities to convert dead and dying trees to renewable power. In the twelve months since the Governor issued the Emergency Proclamation, the number of dead trees has more than doubled to 66 million and is expected to continue to increase.

In 2016, the California Legislature stepped in to require that California utilities renew contracts for 125 megawatts of forest biomass energy from existing facilities and to simplify rules for connecting new small-scale forest bioenergy facilities to the electricity grid. Together with the Emergency Order, these laws should help to address the tree mortality crisis by providing a safer, more beneficial way to dispose of dead and dying trees. In the long term, California needs many new small-scale forest bioenergy facilities that use gasification and other non-combustion technologies to convert diseased trees and excess forest biomass to energy.

Science based conservation groups recognize that restoring healthy, resilient forests in the West will require more active management, including removal of some diseased trees and excess forest biomass. Converting that biomass to energy in small-scale biomass gasification facilities emits much lower greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions than open burning. According to a study by the Placer County Air District, bioenergy can cut greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions by up to 85 percent compared to wildfire or even controlled burns. Helping to reduce catastrophic fires also helps to maintain forest carbon in the biomass and the soil, and to restore healthy, resilient forests.

Wildfire is normal in western forests, but catastrophic fires like the Rim Fire are not. Land managers are seeking long-term solutions including forest thinning and re-introduction of controlled fire. An alternative to current forest biomass disposal options is diversion of excess biomass for use as a feedstock to generate renewable power. As landowners and agencies ramp up the pace and scale of forest thinning efforts, the bioenergy sector will play a significant role in the coming years, as a ready market for excess forest biomass.

Julia Levin is the Executive Director of the Bioenergy Association of California and former Deputy Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.

Tad Mason is the CEO of TSS Consultants and a Registered Professional Forester.

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