Western Nevada County Biomass Utilization Feasibility Project. Frequently Asked Questions

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1 Western Nevada County Biomass Utilization Feasibility Project Frequently Asked Questions Q: What is woody biomass and where does it come from? A: Woody biomass for the Nevada County project will primarily be from forest management and hazard reduction projects on private and public land, with a lesser amount from agriculture sources like orchard trimmings. This is woody material that does not have a higher value for other products like lumber and is commonly referred to as excess biomass or woody waste. The excess biomass from forest management projects and hazard reduction projects consists of limbs, tops, brush and stems of trees too small to produce other products. This is material that needs to be removed or disposed of to reduce fire hazard is usually removed by piling and burning. Woody biomass can also include waste wood from urban areas (e.g., construction wood, tree trimmings). Q: What is renewable biomass energy? Why is it renewable? A: A renewable resource is one that naturally replenishes itself after it has been used or which is never depleted by use. Examples of renewable resources that are used to produce electricity include water, sunlight, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Renewable energy technologies harness the energy in renewable energy resources. In the cases of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, use does not deplete the resource. Biomass resources can be replenished as trees can be propagated by planting or natural seeding. There are three ways in which biomass resources can be utilized for electricity: 1) conversion of materials such as urban wood wastes and mill wastes, 2) dedicated energy crops (trees, shrubs and other plants grown specifically for energy production), and 3) as a byproduct of forest management activities. For example, biomass can be produced from thinning forest stands to reduce hazardous fuel loading or improve forest health. Energy production from such sources is sustainable as long as there continues to be regrowth in the forests. Q: What is a biomass power generation facility? How is power currently generated from wood? A: A biomass power plant burns woody biomass for the production of electricity and/or heat. The wood is combusted in a controlled environment with very controlled emissions. Some systems use the heat to produce steam that in turn powers a turbine to create electricity. Gasificiation systems heat wood, again in a very controlled environment, but are designed to capture the gas that is released from the heating. The gas can be used to power an internal combustion engine that powers a generator to produce electricity. Both the steam and gasification systems produce excess heat that can be captured and used for various applications either on-site or nearby. Biomass can sometimes be used in combination with other fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas to fire boilers and create electricity (known as co-firing). Q: What is the electricity output of a biomass power plant? 1

2 A: The intended end use of the energy and the availability of fuel/feedstock determine the capacity of a biomass power plant to generate electricity. In the U.S., most biomass power plants are associated with forest industries such as sawmills. These produce electricity and heat or steam using biomass wastes (e.g., sawdust and bark) from the sawmill operations. Electricity and heat or steam generated can be utilized for the sawmill. Excess electricity can be sold to the electrical grid. Generally, biomass power plants are larger than 15 megawatts (one megawatt is enough to service about 1,000 households for a year), but can range from less than 1 MW to over 50 MW. It takes about 8,000 bone dry tons (2 big trucks a day) of woody biomass to produce one MW of electricity on an annual basis. In California, there is current emphasis on establishing smaller biomass power facilities 3 megawatts and smaller and locating them nearer to potential biomass supplies. Q: What waste products does the plant produce? A: Biomass power plants produce ash (about 3 to 5% of the fuel input by weight). Depending on the source of biomass and the combustion process, power plant ash can be used as a soil amendment or in masonry and cement products. Water used to create steam for electricity production can be recycled. Gasification systems can produce biochar, a valuable soil amendment, as a byproduct. Q: What air pollution issues does biomass power present? A: Biomass power plants are designed with air pollution controls for minimizing discharges of regulated air pollutants. Biomass power plants are subject to regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board, and local air quality management districts. Biomass power plants can eliminate percent of pollutants that would otherwise be produced by open burning of that same biomass. Q: How would biomass power impact wildfire catastrophes? Will biomass power endanger our forests? A: Throughout the western U.S., a large potential source of biomass for power production is fire hazard reduction and forest management projects. These projects thin the forest and help reduce the size and intensity of wildfires. Properly executed fire hazard reduction projects can also improve forest health and make the forest less susceptible to drought, insect attacks and disease. The projects also create excess biomass that is usually disposed of by open burning. Utilizing excess biomass for energy production will make hazard reduction projects more economically feasible by creating a biomass market. Proper planning of biomass energy facilities starts with determination of long term availability of sustainable waste biomass to assure that overcutting of forests is not an issue. Biomass power plants therefore pose little or no risk to forests from over-cutting and can contribute to improvements in forest health and reduced fire hazard. Q: How is it renewable energy if it emits greenhouse gases? A: A biomass power plant does produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas but significantly reduces other greenhouse gases versus open burning or even on-site 2

3 disposal. If the biomass fuel supply is obtained as a byproduct of reducing fire hazard in natural forests, the energy facility emissions may be offset by the reduced emissions that would have occurred if the forest burned in a wildfire since wildfires are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, it has been estimated that the 2007 Angora fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin released 141,000 metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere within a period of a few days. This is equivalent to the emissions from over 28,000 cars in one year. By utilizing fuels derived from forest management that reduces the probability of wildfire and considering the natural growth and associated sequestration of carbon by forest trees, a biomass power plant can be considered renewable and carbon neutral. Biomass is a unique fuel in that it is derived from a resource that is naturally replenished by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Also, using biomass for electricity production may offset the use of non-renewable fossil fuels, further reducing greenhouse gas production. And, use of excess biomass in an energy facility in lieu of open burning or on-site chipping results in reductions of other green house gases and burning-generated particulates that have been shown to have a significant effect on climate change. Q: Will there be an increased cost of lumber products or food produce? Will any food crops be impacted (like corn due to ethanol production)? A: As previously discussed, sources of wood for biomass power generation do not have higher and better uses such as conversion to lumber. They mainly consist of materials that would not be used otherwise, such as residues (e.g., small stems, brush) from fire hazard reduction. Consequently, there would be no impact on lumber prices. Unlike activities such as biofuels production (e.g., ethanol) that currently consume biomass usable for food (such as corn), production of electricity from woody biomass would not have an impact on food supply or prices. Q: Is biomass power more expensive than other power generation? A: When compared to the direct monetary costs of power production from fossil fuels and hydroelectric power, biomass power is currently more expensive. Biomass power requires fuel that has considerable collection, processing and handling costs. In addition, biomass obtained from forest management projects has positive environmental effects associated with reduction of wildfire effects,, improved air quality, improved forest health, and reduction of greenhouse gases, as well as community economic development. These societal benefits offer significant advantages over fossil fuel-based electricity. Q: Can biomass be used to make liquid or gas fuels? What about transportation fuels? A: Scientific and technical processes are being developed in order to convert the cellulosic material of woody biomass into usable fuels. Significant research and development is currently underway to make such conversion processes technically and economically viable. However, conversion technologies are not yet considered economical and are not used on an industrial scale (e.g., corn to ethanol). Synthetic gas fuels (syngas similar to natural gas) and liquid fuels (ethanol and synthetic diesel) have been created in pilot-scale facilities in Europe and in limited quantities in the United States. The primary challenge of developing liquid or gas fuels from woody biomass is 3

4 breaking down the complex cellulosic structure of wood into simple hydrocarbons and sugars that can be converted into liquid fuels. Because of the promise that biofuels may have for reducing America s dependence on foreign oil, significant private and public sector resources are being devoted to support research, development and commercial deployment of biomass to fuels conversion technologies. Use of biomass to generate electricity is now commercially feasible and currently offers advantages over biofuel technology Q: What is Biochar? A: Biochar, essentially a form of charcoal, is a byproduct of some bioenergy facilities that has value as a soil amendment. Biochar is created in gasification systems by heating biomass in a low/no oxygen environment that also releases gases that are used to fuel internal combustion engines that power generators. Biochar has been shown to increase soil productivity by improving soil structure, increasing water retention and increasing soil microbial activity. Biochar lasts in soils for a very long time and is thus a good long-term carbon sequester. Q: How will this facility be funded? A: A biomass facility will likely be funded through a biomass development company that seeks independent funding from banks or investors. It is hoped that the Biomass Feasibility Assessment being completed for western Nevada County will provide sufficient information to attract such a development company. Q: What constitutes a sustainable supply of biomass? A: Sustainable biomass supply is the amount of biomass that is available in the longterm without negatively affecting the productivity of forests and the resources they provide such factors as watershed health, wildlife habitat, and soil productivity. The Sustainable Supply Analysis of the Biomass Feasibility Assessment will determine how much biomass is sustainably available in the long-term from forest management and hazard reduction projects and from sources like utility line clearing, chipping by the Fire Safe Council, and urban green waste. Q: Does building a biomass power generation facility create an incentive for everyone to start cutting down trees? A: In short, no. Trees on various ownerships, whether in the public or private wildlands or in more developed neighborhoods are far more valuable for products other than biomass and would be cut down for those products if the owners were interested only in economic outcome. Having some value for biomass may provide some offset of the cost of doing fire hazard reduction and, therefore, an incentive to remove small trees and brush that provide fire hazard but have no other economic value. Q: Where will this facility be located? 4

5 A: The Biomass Feasibility Assessment will include an analysis of several potentially feasible locations in the Nevada City/Grass Valley general area. The sites will be rated against factors like access to the existing electrical grid, access for trucks supplying chipped biomass to the facility, existing zoning and potential impacts on nearby neighborhoods. Q: How does this project relate to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan? A: A biomass facility would provide some incentive for landowners to complete fire hazard reduction work on their properties and would therefore be in concert with the CWPP. Q: What are the benefits of a biomass power generation facility? A: A biomass facility would provide a market for excess biomass, most of which is now being disposed of by open burning. It would provide an incentive for landowners to complete fire hazard reduction on their properties, would benefit air quality, reduce greenhouse gases, help protect forest resources, lives and improvements, provide local employment and economic return to local governments, and would produce renewable energy. Q: What is the economic benefit to the community? A: Studies have shown that biomass energy facilities support about 5 jobs per megawatt of output. These are living wage jobs that help support the local economy. The facility itself would generate tax revenues and provide a stable source of local energy through the existing grid. Q: How does this project benefit me? A: A facility would benefit most those residents who can take advantage of the incentives to do fire hazard reduction projects on their property. The facility would be a benefit to all Nevada County residents in terms of protection of communities, improvements, and forest resources as well as the benefits to the local economy. Q: What s this project going to cost me? A: The project should not cost local residents anything. A potential developer might offer some kind of voluntary investment program that residents could choose to participate in. 5

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