Farmers say measure helps generate renewable energy

A bill in the California Legislature would make it easier for farmers and others to cleanly convert agricultural waste like almond hulls into electricity and feed it into the energy grid, supporters contend.

The measure, SB 489, which has been dubbed the Renewable Energy Equity Act, would give bioenergy the same regulatory bragging rights now given to other forms of alternative energy.

Current regulations make bioenergy systems costly to connect to the state's energy grid and thus more difficult to economically justify, proponents of the bill say. State law allows solar, wind, biogas and fuel cell power generating systems of 1 megawatt or less to connect to the grid through a simpler process called net energy metering.

SB 489 would allow small bioenergy systems to do the same. In a similar measure, Gov. Schwarznegger in October 2009 signed AB 920 into law, requiring California utilities to compensate homeowners with solar systems for surplus energy produced.

Net energy metering

The net energy metering program allows utility customers who generate their own power to get paid for the power they feed back into the grid. Credit earned offsets a customer's utility bill.

Net energy metering is "an important element of the policy framework supporting direct customer investment in grid-tied distributed renewable energy generation," according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

A fact sheet produced by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Sacramento, says connecting other forms of clean energy to the grid now "requires going through the longer, more arduous, and very expensive feed-in-tariff process."

Wolk says that for smaller energy producers, costs incurred by the longer process often outweigh the benefits.

Dixon Ridge Farms

Katrina Schwartz writes in KQED's Climate Watch blog about Russ Lester, owner of Dixon Ridge Farms in Yolo County, and his efforts to get the rules changed. Lester has installed a 50-kilowatt biogasifier that burns walnut shells at high temperatures to create fuel to run his generator and heat to dry his walnuts, Schwartz says.

Lester, who grows organic walnuts, is among about 50 groups and individuals listed by the California Climate & Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, as supporting Wolk's measure. The bill has passed the Senate and its first two Assembly committees. It next heads to the Appropriations Committee and then to the full Assembly.

CalCAN says SB 489 will allow agricultural businesses to more easily and economically convert agricultural waste into clean renewable energy, help reduce the need for new power plants and transmission infrastructure and save money on their power bills. "Expanding the program will also help the state reach both its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and also its renewable energy goals," officials say.

A number of manufacturers of multiple technologies advertised as "clean and green" may benefit from SB 489.

Bioenergy lights up rural India

Kate Greene of reports on a similar move by startup Husk Power Systems, based in the state of Bihar, India rolling out rice husk-using biomass power plants to rural areas of the populous Asian nation. The plants are small, about 40 megawatts -- but bring power to communities that often relied on kerosene for lighting.

The Husk Power website quotes Rambalak Yadav, a teacher the "remote and run-down village of Tamkuha, literally meaning Fog of Darkness," as saying, "After 60 independent years, we have found freedom from darkness."

While the effect in this country is much less pronounced, the results of local energy are the same. And for Husk, the concept is proving successful. The company has installed at least 30 of the plants and plans to increase that number a couple thousand in the next several years.

Bioenergy gets government support

The U.S. Department of Energy also believes in bioenergy, releasing the report, "U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry" in August 2011. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven says the study identifies resources "that can help grow America’s bioenergy industry and support new economic opportunities for rural America."

Chu says developing the next generation of American biofuels and bioenergy will help diversify the nation's energy portfolio, reduce dependence on foreign oil and produce new clean energy jobs.

I learned about a couple of bioenergy systems back in 2009 at a trade show. Both touted better-than-fossil-fuel emissions. One involved biomass gasification, the other pyrolytic thermal conversion of biomass. Both involved turning animal waste into gas and listed emissions that met strict air-quality standards.

I came away after talking with the representatives thinking American ingenuity is truly an amazing thing.

Photo: Courtesy McDougall Trading, a company that represents more than 40 almond hullers in California.