California Biopower Impact Project: creating a Life Cycle Assessment for bioenergy systems

The Schatz Center recently began work on the California Biopower Impact (CBI) Project, supported by a three-year $1,000,000 grant from the California Energy Commission. Our project will investigate the impacts associated with utilization of forest-derived woody biomass and agricultural residues for electricity generation. If managed properly, bioenergy could support sustainable forest management activities while also advancing California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard goals. However, there are also legitimate concerns surrounding the climate, air quality, soil fertility, and ecosystem health implications of improperly managed bioenergy systems. Before biomass energy can be responsibly pursued as a means to achieve forest management and renewable energy goals, additional research is needed to firmly establish the climate impact and broader environmental performance of forest and agricultural bioenergy.

Our central effort under the CBI Project will be the creation of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) greenhouse gas emissions accounting tool that will allow stakeholders in California to evaluate the impacts of different bioenergy policy and technology pathways in the state. Along with greenhouse gas balances, the project team will address additional critical environmental impacts that can be associated with bioenergy – including altered risk or severity of wildfire, soil fertility and carbon stock reduction, changes to air quality, and potential impact on habitats and biodiversity.

Pile of small branches

Woody biomass

Key study areas and outputs:

  • Assessment and mapping of net recoverable biomass that could be utilized for electricity generation. This analysis will focus on agricultural residues as well as forestry residues and fire reduction thinning material per the California Governor’s state of emergency brought on by the record numbers of drought and beetle- killed trees in the Sierra Nevada range.
  • Conduct a landscape-level probabilistic assessment of the fire risk implications of sustainable forest harvesting. Fire behavior under future climate scenarios will be simulated using the Pacific Northwest variant of the USDA Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS) in combination with the Fires and Fuels Extension and Climate Extension modules.
  • Develop and demonstrate the California Residual Biomass-to-electricity Carbon Accounting Tool (CaRBCAT). This tool will improve on existing frameworks representing California’s unique bioeconomy context, offering improved spatial resolution, rigorously characterizing uncertainty, and offering a high degree of specification regarding supply chain characteristics. Users will be able to specify harvest practices, feedstock collection and handling methods, post-harvest treatments, feedstock management pathways, conversion technologies, and other characteristics.
  • Characterize and report on key environmental impacts of residual biomass mobilization such as changes to soil nutrient balance and carbon stock, air quality effects from altered black carbon and criteria air pollutant emission profiles, and impacts to biodiversity.
  • Assess potential to offset some harvest and supply chain costs through payments for ecosystem services and similar environmental market schemes.
  • Identify best management practices to improve bioelectricity system net GHG balance as well as to optimize performance with respect to fire risk, soil health, air quality, and habitat conservation. Develop and disseminate science-based policy recommendations that support implementation of these practices in bioelectricity supply chains.
Kevin Fingerman headshot

Kevin Fingerman, CBI Project Principal Investigator

Kevin Fingerman is a Schatz Center Faculty Research Associate and an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science & Management at Humboldt State University. His research employs life cycle assessment and simulation modeling tools to evaluate the broad-based impacts of bioenergy and transportation energy systems. He has also worked extensively on the water/energy nexus and on bioenergy policy.

Kevin serves on the board of directors of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials and, prior to joining HSU, he worked in Rome for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He holds MS and PhD degrees from UC Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Group.

Alternative Fuel Readiness Planning

Last year, in partnership with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) and other key regional partners, SERC embarked on a two-year Alternative Fuels Readiness Planning (AFRP) project funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC). This project seeks to assess the potential for development of alternative transportation fuels such as electricity, hydrogen, and some biofuels in the North Coast region of California.

The goal of the SERC-led analytical work is to explore pathways for the North Coast region to achieve the 10% reduction in average fuel carbon intensity by 2020 mandated under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). To this end, we have recently finished developing a simulation model, drawing on price data for fuels, vehicles, and distribution infrastructure, as well as analysis of regional transportation trends and fuel life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The model allows us to simulate the economic efficiency of GHG reduction via each fuel pathway individually as well as for a suite of technologies deployed to meet the LCFS target. It offers a nuanced understanding of the systems in question, enabling us to evaluate the impact of changing fuel and vehicle prices, electric grid carbon intensities, and other factors on the cost of GHG abatement through alternative fuel deployment.

Outputs of this analysis are being used by RCEA as it engages with both public and private sector transportation energy stakeholders across the region. This collaboration will lead to the development of a strategic plan for deploying a more sustainable transportation system in the North Coast of California.

Marginal Abatement Cost (MAC) for each of the fuel pathways considered. Presented here is aggregate marginal cost above a conventional fuel/vehicle baseline. These costs include fuel cost as well as any incremental vehicle or distribution infrastructure cost required for a given fuel type.

Marginal Abatement Cost (MAC) for each of the fuel pathways considered. Presented here is aggregate marginal cost above a conventional fuel/vehicle baseline. These costs include fuel cost as well as any incremental vehicle or distribution infrastructure cost required for a given fuel type.