What is biomass electricity, and what waste to energy & biomass in California means for you and me.

What is biomass electricity? 
Biomass electricity is drawn from combusting or decomposing organic matter.

There are about 132 waste-to-energy plants in California, with a total capacity of almost 1,000 megawatts. These plants power our homes and businesses with electricity from waste matter that would have been released into the atmosphere, added fuel to forest fires, and burdened our landfills.

Why is biomass electricity important?
Using biomass to produce electricity reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, the nation's primary energy sources for electricity, and the largest contributors to air pollution and greenhouse gases. We will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Biomass electricity offers alternatives with many benefits:
  • Our supply of biomass is renewable, meaning it will not run out.
  • Electricity produced by biomass reduces the threat of global climate change.
  • Using biomass waste eliminates the need to place it in landfills.
  • Clearing biomass from wooded areas helps prevent forest fires.
  • Using by-product methane gases to produce electricity eliminates odor and reduces air pollution in surrounding areas.
Waste to Energy & Biomass in California...
Californians create nearly than 2,900 pounds of household garbage and industrial waste each and every second; a total of 85.2 million tons of waste in 2005 (according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board)! Of that, 43.2 million tons is recovered and recycled or used to make energy, but 42 million tons has to be disposed in landfills. Thanks to advances in technology, waste known as biomass, is put to valuable use producing electricity.

In 2007, 6,236 gigawatt hours of electricity in homes and businesses was produced from biomass: burning forestry, agricultural, and urban biomass; converting methane-rich landfill gas to energy (LFGTE); and processing wastewater and dairy biogas into useful energy. Biomass power plants produced 2.1 percent of the total electricity in California in 2007, or about one-fifth of all the renewable energy.

Bioenergy is renewable energy derived from biological sources, to be used for heat, electricity, or vehicle fuel. Biofuel derived from plant materials is among the most rapidly growing renewable energy technologies.

State Policy on Biomass and Biofuels
The Governor directed several state agencies - including the Energy Commission - to take major steps toward the widespread use of biomass to produce clean, renewable transportation fuels or electricity. This directive helped to reinvigorate the Bioenergy Interagency Working Group through the help of the California Biomass Collaborative.

The Bioenergy Interagency Working Group -- lead by Commissioner Jim Boyd of the California Energy Commission, and includes the Air Resources Board (ARB), California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), California Public Utilities Commission, California Resources Agency, Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Department of General Services, Integrated Waste Management Board, and the State Water Resources Control Board -- made a recommendation to the Governor in March 2006 on biomass and biofuels.

That report, Recommendations for a Bioenergy Action Plan for California , can be downloaded from their website. (PDF file, 56 pages, 4.5 MB).

The Governor issued an Executive Order S-06-06 (PDF file), signed on April 25, 2006, dealing with biomass and biofuels. Two important points stated that:
  • By 2010, 20 percent of its biofuels need to be produced within California; increasing to 40 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2050.
  • By 2010, 20 percent of the renewable electricity should be generated from biomass resources within the state; maintaining this level through 2020.
The Governor then in July 2006, released California's Bioenergy Action Plan (PDf file, 11 pages, 2.1 MB). The plan's objectives included:
  • Establish California as a market leader in technology innovation, sustainable biomass development, and market development for bio-based products.
  • Coordinate research, development, demonstration, and commercialization efforts across federal and state agencies. ----Develop biomass roadmap.
  • Align existing regulatory requirements to encourage production and use of California's biomass resources.
  • Facilitate market entry for new applications of bioenergy including electricity, biogas, and biofuels.
  • Maximize the contributions of bioenergy toward achieving the state's petroleum reduction, climate change, renewable energy, and environmental goals.( )
Photo Credit:

Grant opportunity for biomass, biofuel research

The federal Departments of Agriculture and Energy, continuing research into biomass and biofuel, are funding projects that combine three program areas: (A) Feedstock development, (B)Biofuels and bio based products development, and (C) Biofuels and bio-based products development analysis.

The agencies are accepting grant applications through April 24 for projects that research or demonstrate the conversion of feedstock and cellulosic biomass into biofuel and bio-based products such as chemicals, animal feed and co-generation power.

Successful applications will consider cradle-to-grave impacts, including environmental, social and economic implications. Nonprofits, universities and businesses are invited to apply for the grants. More information can be found here.

Clean Energy's Industrial Revolution

Some analysts liken the technological advancements in clean energy to an Industrial Revolution. It is hard to argue when fascinating research is under way. Here are just a few things that caught my eye in recent weeks:

1/ Cool research by CoolPlanet Biofuels of Camarillo, CA., into the possible conversion of raw biomass such as algae and crop waste into high-grade fuel. Read more at this Green Car Congress post;

2/Continued studies into wave power, such as this Australian project that would produce both energy and fresh water;

3/University of Notre Dame research into solar paint that could transform homes into electricity generators. Current designs aren't very efficient, but the paint is inexpensive to make in large quantities. Who knows where this leads, but it is fascinating. More here.;

4/ The lessons learned from this showcase village in Germany that produces more energy than it consumes;

5/ Possible construction of an entire town in New Mexico devoted to test sustainability concepts;

6/ Continued efforts to increase efficiency and reduce costs of solar power so that it reaches grid parity. More on that here and here;

7/Scientists at Tulane run a car on newspapers.

(Photo of wheat field by Macin Smolinski)

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.