Growing Interest in Biomass at SERC

Ranjit lights a Gasifier

Schatz Energy Fellow Ranjit Deshmukh fires up the GAS-11 gasifier during a four-day training at Ankur Scientific Energy Technologies in India. (Photo courtesy of Ranjit Deshmukh)

Readers of SERC Energy News may have noticed that our last issue featured two articles on the topic of biomass energy. SERC’s newfound interest in this energy resource is natural and perhaps overdue, considering that Humboldt County where we are based is California’s leading timber producing county. Travel north, south or east of Arcata and dense forests dominate the landscape for many miles. Could materials from these forests make a significant contribution to meeting our energy needs?

The fact is they already do. The two large biomass-fired power plants in Humboldt County produce about 30% of the electricity used in the county. Feedstock for those plants is mainly logging slash and sawmill waste. And in the Background Technical Report SERC recently authored for the energy element of the Humboldt County General Plan update, we estimated that nearly 20% of residential space heating energy in Humboldt County is provided by woodstoves.

SERC’s interest in biomass energy is focused on small- to medium-scale applications producing heat, electricity, or combined heat and power. A study we just completed for the U.S. Forest Service looked at using biomass collected from forest thinning operations in wildfire-prone areas to provide space heat for a 9,000-square-foot USFS facility.

As we reported in our previous issue, we’ll soon acquire a biomass gasifier from Ankur Scientific that produces 20 kW of heat or 11 kW of electric power, suitable for a small commercial facility. One of the things we want to learn is how equipment of this scale could help build a market for materials generated locally by forest fuels reduction efforts. Such a market could help to make these expensive but critically important thinning projects more economical and avoid the air quality impacts of burning the forest waste in open piles, as is currently the practice. We are also exploring ways that biomass heat or power could be a cost-effective solution in special cases where conventional fuels are expensive or difficult to obtain. This is sometimes the case on Tribal lands and in the North Coast’s most isolated, off-grid homesteads and settlements.

SERC staff feel strongly that any increase in the use of biomass energy in our region needs to happen in the context of sustainable forest management. When done right, biomass energy projects can actually improve the environment by reducing severe wildfire hazards, and by mitigating climate change. Sustainably harvested forest energy resources, which cycle carbon between the atmosphere and the forest on a short timescale, can cut net greenhouse emissions if they replace fossil fuels, which transfer carbon in a one-way flow from deep underground into our skies. For more detail on this topic, see the work of local resident Dr. Andrea Tuttle, former Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and now advising the California Air Resources Board on how to optimize carbon sequestration in the state’s forests.

Another sign of the emerging importance of forest biomass energy is the recent spate of conferences and workshops on the topic, both locally and regionally. SERC’s Jim Zoellick recently attended a Montana conference on using biomass to heat buildings. SERC staff also participated in recent biomass workshops around the county sponsored by a community fire safe council and the University of California’s Cooperative Extension. We will provide updates on our adventures in biomass in future issues.