Humboldt County Biomass

Humboldt Redwood Company's biomass power plant in Scotia

Local Biomass Power

The term biomass refers to materials of biological origin, such as forest and agricultural waste, that can be used as fuel for generating electric power. Local biomass power makes up approximately one-fourth of Redwood Coast Energy Authority’s current electricity portfolio. We have contracts with Humboldt Sawmill Company in Scotia and DG Fairhaven Power on the Samoa peninsula, which use waste material from local sawmills to power their plants.

RCEA includes biomass as a portion of our current power mix for a number of reasons:

  • Biomass power is currently the only utility-scale (i.e. multi-megawatt) source of renewable electricity in the county and serves as a starting point toward our goal of 100% local renewable power. Our biomass contracts to date are relatively short term (1 to 5 years) and allow us to keep our options open for the future as we seek to diversify our local renewables portfolio.
  • Biomass power plants primarily use mill waste that would otherwise need to be disposed of by an alternative means. In the absence of the local biomass plants, our sources in the forest products industry tell us they would resort to trucking the material to more distant power plants, thus increasing total emissions. Other alternatives for local use of the wood waste may be feasible, such as composting or production of durable goods. However, to our knowledge no one is currently positioned to implement these solutions locally at the needed scale. The local mill waste stream is abundant enough that the local plants are able to fulfill their RCEA power contracts without harvesting trees specifically for feedstock.
  • Biomass power plants provide high-skill blue collar jobs that strengthen the local economy.
  • Humboldt County is the number one forest products producer among California’s 58 counties. Bioregionally, it makes sense to use local mill waste here, just as it makes sense to use local geothermal power in Sonoma and Lake Counties, wind in the Tehachapi and Altamont wind areas, and solar power in the deserts of southeastern California.

At the time we launched our program, we paid a premium price for local renewable power, in consideration of the plants’ relatively high operating costs and the community benefits discussed above. However, we have since renegotiated these contracts to bring them more in line with prices paid in this region for other forms of renewable power.

Some community members have expressed concern about the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air pollutants from the biomass plants. RCEA’s biomass contracts call for strict compliance with federal, state, and local environmental regulations, including air emissions. The state’s GHG emissions rules for power plants count only the “non-biogenic” emissions from fossil fuels such as natural gas that are used at these plants to start up equipment. These fuels make up a relatively small part of the plants’ total fuel use. Emissions from the biomass itself are accounted for by the state separately in the forestry sector, per internationally accepted GHG accounting standards.

Frequently Asked Questions & RCEA staff responses to public comments

The following are answers to some questions we have heard from community members about biomass and RCEA’s interest in buying electricity generated from biomass:

(Click on the blue comments)

Response: The plants utilize waste from local lumber mills, not whole trees, as their primary fuel source (according to local forest products industry sources, some whole trees from operations such as roadside vegetation management may be sent directly to the biomass plants). In the absence of the plants, the material would otherwise need to be disposed of by an alternative means, most likely trucking it to more distant power plants, thus increasing total emissions. The local mill waste stream is more than sufficient to allow the plants to fulfill their RCEA power contracts without harvesting trees specifically for feedstock.

Response: Potential alternatives for local use of the mill waste include composting or production of durable goods. However, to our knowledge no one is currently positioned to implement these solutions locally at the needed scale. There are significant permitting and social acceptance hurdles for a startup commercial composting facility to overcome. From a greenhouse gas perspective, rigorous analysis is needed to determine the emissions implications of composting the biomass instead of using it for electricity generation. RCEA recognizes the value of such analysis, but it is outside our organization’s mission and technical expertise to perform.

Response: Biomass power is typically more costly than other forms of renewable energy, mainly because it is more labor-intensive to produce. For Humboldt County, this can mean higher power costs, but also means skilled local jobs that help strengthen our economy. RCEA originally contracted its biomass procurement at the lowest price offered to us under a competitive solicitation for biomass power. This was substantially higher than what we were paying for renewable power from other, non-local sources. However, we have since renegotiated this contract to a lower price, and entered a second biomass contract at a comparable price that, inclusive of all power products in the contracts, is approximately at parity with our other renewable resources. RCEA’s current effort to contract for long-term renewables is expected to bring us contracts at prices below what we currently pay for biomass power, as we strive to maintain an affordable power mix.

Response: RCEA includes substantial amounts of solar and wind power in our portfolio and is striving to develop these resources locally. Biomass is a “baseload” resource, meaning it can be used to serve electricity demand at any time of day or night to balance out the production from intermittent renewables. Wind and solar are not baseload resources, and thus are not available on-demand. Battery storage can alleviate this issue but is not yet cost-effective to deploy at the scale that would be needed to replace biomass’s baseload function in the local power mix.

Response: RCEA’s current contracts call for power producers to comply with all laws and regulations, including emissions limits. Beyond this, we do not dictate what equipment is to be used to control emissions. Some plant improvements have been made since RCEA began contracting for biomass power, and data to become available to the public in the future through the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission, will show whether this is resulting in lower emissions per unit of energy produced. Further improvements in the plants are possible, but the operators are unlikely to make these investments unless they are ordered to by regulators or offered a higher price for power with plant improvements as a contractual condition.

Biomass vs. vehicle emissions: The local biomass power plants together emit less greenhouse gasses than from on-road vehicles in Humboldt County. The comparison referenced in some of the submitted comments only accounted for emissions from vehicles in the unincorporated county and excluded emissions from vehicles in the seven incorporated cities.

Biomass contract length: RCEA is not in a long-term contract with either of the biomass plants. We are in a five-year contract with Humboldt Redwood Company and a one-year contract (with option to renew each year) with DG Fairhaven. Long-term contracts are ten-year and above, as defined by the state for compliance with SB 350 (the law requiring us and load-serving entities to procure at least 65% of our state-mandated renewable energy under long-term contracts starting in 2021).

Humboldt State University Capstone Class on Alternative Biomass Uses

Humboldt State University logo

RCEA’s RePower Humboldt 2019 strategic plan update (PDF)  includes strategies addressing Humboldt County’s biomass management needs: 1) Support biomass fuels reduction and utilization, and 2) Plan for a long-term transition away from direct combustion of forest-derived biomass and toward lower-impact uses of this material. In support of these strategies, students of Drs. Sintana Vergara and Tesfayohanes Yacob’s spring 2020 Environmental Resources Engineering capstone design project class focused on alternative biomass uses. 

The students worked in six teams and identified and evaluated different energy and non-energy biomass uses. RCEA Power Resources staff acted as clients for the class. Here are the teams’ findings:

An HSU Capstone Class Presentation on Alternative Biomass Uses

The 2019 RePower Humboldt strategic plan update addresses Humboldt County’s biomass management needs and how they relate to RCEA’s power portfolio. Humboldt State University’s spring Environmental Resources Engineering capstone design project class focused on alternative biomass uses in support of these strategies. On Tuesday, August 11, three students shared their class’ findings on different energy and non-energy biomass uses during a webinar hosted by RCEA. The professors were Sintana Vergara and Tesfayohanes Yacob.

RePower Humboldt

Our RePower Humboldt page captures the public comment that went into shaping our strategic plan update, including a focus on biomass. Please visit the RePower Humboldt Update page for information about recent public meetings, comments, RCEA’s responses to public comments, and more.

Biomass in Humboldt County

This Biomass in Humboldt County (PDF) document was prepared by Michael J Furniss, Climate and Forests Consultant to RCEA. The report includes a Brief  Summary of Workshops, Consultations, and Research.

November, 2019

Forestry, Energy, and the Environment Workshop

RePower Humboldt / Comprehensive Action Plan for Energy Update

October 18, 2019, at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center in Eureka

Final workshop in the summer/fall 2019 series explores the role of regional forests and biomass in addressing climate change, and what strategies could be developed to support that role in Humboldt County.

Panel (in seating order):

  • Michael Furniss – Moderator, Consultant to RCEA
  • Yana Valachovic – County Director and Forest Advisor, UC Extension
  • Kevin Fingerman – Assistant Professor, Energy & the Environment, Humboldt State University
  • Jason Davis – Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer, North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District
  • Richard Engel – Director Power Resources, Redwood Coast Energy Authority
  • Angie Lottes – Assistant Deputy Director for Climate & Energy, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
  • Dan Chandler – Member
  • Adam Steinbuck – Director, Fiber and Freight, Humboldt Redwoods Company, LLC

Facilitator: Ali Lee

Introduction: Matthew Marshall, Executive Director, Redwood Coast Energy Authority

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