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Does Biomass Still Have A Place In Humboldt County’s Energy Future?

Michael Joyce/JPR
Wood waste at Mad River Lumber headed for the hog grinder

Humboldt County, California is facing an energy crisis. It’s also facing an energy opportunity. 

Traditionally, one-third of the county’s energy production has come from converting woody biomass to energy. But local biomass power plants are closing, just as the county is trying to join the  likes of Sonoma and Marin counties in taking over its own energy rates and encourage more locally-sourced power. 

In this first of two stories, we take a closer look at a biomass industry in jeopardy.

Ben Campbell, manager of Mad River Lumber in Arcata, looks over a load of what’s known as “hog fuel” going up a conveyor belt at the lumber mill.

“It’s just a mix of everything we have,” Campbell says. “Bark, wood, leftover chips - and it gets ground up by these hammers and this is what comes out. It’s woody biomass is what it is.”

When it comes to wood products, hog fuel is the bottom of the barrel. But it’s still valuable. It can be sold to power plants and burned to drive turbines and create energy. 

Bob Britt is the former owner of Mad River Lumber and has been in the industry for over 50 years. He says Mad River had been getting about $16,000 a month from the Fairhaven Power Plant, one of three biomass power plants in the county. Now that revenue stream is gone.

Fairhaven shut down. So did Blue Lake. And Scotia isn’t accepting hog fuel from area mills.

And Britt says, “If we don’t have a place to ship our waste product, we’re shut down.”

With that goes 25 high-paying jobs, a slew of trucking contracts, and a ripple effect through an economy that has always been strongly linked to the timber industry.

Steve Hackett is an economics professor at Humboldt State University who specializes in natural resources and clean energy.

“The fact that the biomass power plants are struggling in the current model is not necessarily surprising,” he says, “because the public utilities they have to go after the lowest cost renewables. That’s an obligation to their rate-payers.“

Converting biomass to energy is not cheap. It’s labor intensive, and it’s not subsidized like some other renewables. And, as it stands now, it doesn’t operate on the scale of wind and solar.

Yana Valachovic, director and forest advisor for the UC Extension office along the north coast, says it’s not simple to compare one renewable energy source against another.

“It’s complicated when you think about renewability because you have to think about where is it manufactured, what energy source is used to manufacture it, and then what is the raw product that is being utilized in some way,” she says. “So the transportation, the extraction, and the production of all of that material has to be thought about.”

Which brings up extracting bioenergy not just from lumber mill waste but the forest itself. Valachovic and others are looking for viable ways to burn forest slash for energy. The idea is to clean up our fuel-heavy forests and minimize catastrophic wildfires.  These fires are actually the number one cause of particulate pollution in what is otherwise an area with astounding air quality.

But critics point out that transportation costs may make this too expensive and not a carbon neutral solution as proponents contend.

Everyone agrees that woody biomass is currently our most accessible and abundant local renewable. What remains debatable is how good it is for the economy and environment. 

Jim Zoellic is a research engineer at the Schatz Energy Research Center on the Humboldt State campus.  He believes that, although biomass may not offer the only solution, a highly localized energy source is definitely needed.

“Humboldt County, the amount of electricity we use here is about 170-180 megawatt peak … about 110 average,” he says. “The lines that connect us to the central valley - the main backbone of the electricity grid goes right down the I-5 corridor -  that capacity is about 70 megawatts. That doesn’t even meet our average load, let alone our peak load. So we have to generate power in Humboldt County to meet our demands."

So with area biomass plants being either closed, outdated, or not running at capacity, Humboldt County will be forced to make some hard decisions regarding energy within the next decade. Will the biomass industry be revitalized? Or, will other emerging technologies like wind and offshore tidal energy become serious contenders?

Tomorrow, in part two of our story, we’ll take a look at a Humboldt agency that is looking to maximize local energy options, provide more consumer control over what kinds of energy are used, and stimulate the local economy in the process.