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Bill to Subsidize California Biomass Facilities

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- by John Cox, April 6, 2015, Bakersfield Californian

Local farmers are adding their support to legislation that would divert revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program to biomass plants that generate power by burning agricultural and urban green waste.

Last month the Kern County Farm Bureau co-hosted a meeting in Delano to raise awareness of Assembly Bill 590 and help an industry the group called “very important” to local growers, in that biomass plants take trimmings and old trees that would otherwise be more expensive for farmers to dispose of.

AB 590, co-authored by Assemblymen Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, and Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, is making its way through the state capitol at a time when California’s biomass industry says it is having a hard time competing with cheaper sources of electrical power, including solar panels and natural gas.

The industry says biomass plants, of which Kern has two, deserve the state’s financial support because they reduce carbon emissions and divert waste from landfills.

Biomass is not without its critics. The editor of Biomass Monitor, Josh Schlossberg, said green waste is better disposed of through composting, and that the facilities’ emission filters let through fine particulates and volatile organic compounds.

“Pretty much every pollutant that’s emitted by a coal plant is also emitted by a biomass plant,” he said.

But without biomass power plants, many Central Valley farmers would probably burn their waste in a far more polluting fashion, said Matt Barnes, director of operations and finance at Covanta Delano Power. The 50-megawatt biomass plant employs 50 full-time workers on Pond Road and burns more than 1,200 tons of biomass per day.

He said biomass plants also reduce demand for fossil fuels and, by combusting wood that would otherwise produce methane during decay, removes a big source of greenhouse gases.

“It’s not added pollution,” Barnes said of the biomass industry’s emissions. “It’s reduced pollution, by about 95 percent.”

Assemblyman Salas agreed that biomass is a healthy alternative to having farmers burn their waste openly. He added that, unlike certain other forms of renewable energy, biomass can produce power at any time, regardless of weather conditions.

The California Biomass Energy Alliance says five plants have closed over the past year, leaving 26 functioning facilities, mainly because of expired power contracts.

Executive Director Julee Malinowski Ball said utilities are unwilling to pay the rates necessary to keep biomass plants open.

“The contracts signed back in the ’80s were 25-, 30-year contracts and, at the end of those contracts, everyone expected power and energy prices to be much higher than they are today,” she said. “They definitely didn’t anticipate the world we live in today.”

Dahle’s bill would raise an estimated $74 million to $120 million per year by tapping revenue generated by sales of air pollution credits. That money would be distributed to biomass plants in the greatest financial need.

California biomass plants dispose of an estimated 8 million tons of waste per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 to 3.5 million tons annually. Together they produce 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 420,000 homes.