Last week Conservation Strategy Group and the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy co-hosted the inaugural California Biomass Workshop to address the key challenges and opportunities in delivering a sustainable bioeconomy to California. Over 200 attendees from state and federal agencies, tribes, research organizations, technology developers, community groups and environmental NGOs led by Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency and Assembly Majority Leader Cecilia Aguiar-Curry met in Sacramento for a deep dive on an issue that is critical to reaching our Scoping Plan goals while protecting California’s natural and working lands.
In this blog post we summarize the main takeaways from the day. CSG is grateful to Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Assembly Majority Leader Cecilia Aguiar-Curry for their excellent keynotes as well as the workshop speakers and sponsors of the event.
California is in the grip of a wood waste crisis. Every year, millions of tons of residues from farms and forests are left to degrade in place or are piled and burned, resulting in massive amounts of carbon and air pollution. This problem is only expected to become worse as the state ramps up its wildfire prevention efforts in accordance with the Governor’s Million Acre Target.
But this challenge can be flipped on its head. If these residues can be collected and turned into something of value, then the state would not only avert a significant pollution source but also unlock a revenue stream to support its forest treatment and broader natural resource management goals. Additionally, it would spur economic development and the creation of good-paying manufacturing jobs in rural, tribal and disadvantaged communities throughout California.
The workshop therefore centered on the key question: how can we achieve this future? Through a series of panel discussions and audience Q&A we heard the perspectives of a diverse group of stakeholders, including local community groups, tribes, academics, environmental organizations, technology developers, state and federal agencies and policy experts. We were also fortunate to hear keynote presentations from two state leaders on this issue, including California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Assembly Majority Leader Cecilia Aguiar-Curry.
The Secretary and Assembly Majority Leader provided unique perspectives on the wood waste challenge.
Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry, who has championed waste biomass issues for a number of years, highlighted a lack of education in the Legislature as a major hurdle to progress. The Assemblywoman emphasized the need to meet with legislators and staff and highlight to them the problem and opportunities presented by new technologies, such as the ability to convert biomass into hydrogen, to support the state’s decarbonization goals. The Assemblywoman encouraged project site visits as one of the best and surest ways to help legislators and staff understand the potential solutions.
Secretary Crowfoot emphasized the state’s huge forest treatment challenge and the role of a sustainable bioeconomy to support this goal. The Secretary highlighted the negative consequences of leaving excess residues in the forest and the need to optimize biomass towards the highest and best end-uses. The Secretary identified a number of current focus areas of the state, including establishing reliable feedstock supply, enabling private sector and community-based project investments, and expanding markets for key technologies including durable wood products and low-carbon and carbon-negative fuels.
In addition to the keynotes, attendees engaged in five panel discussions as well as a federal agency discussion with representatives from the US Forest Service (Diana Craig, Acting Deputy Regional Forester in Region 5) and Department of Energy (Roger Aines, Senior Advisor for Carbon Dioxide Removal to the Under Secretary for Energy and Innovation). The main takeaways from these discussions, including where there appeared to be strong consensus amongst stakeholders, include:
- Active management of the state’s forests is integral to reducing catastrophic wildfire, improving biodiversity and combating climate change. Biomass residues from forest and agricultural lands are anticipated to increase significantly through mid-century.
- Removing and processing the state’s biomass waste requires massive amounts of new infrastructure. The state is actively working to catalyze investments in building California’s biomass processing capacity, including in supporting regional and community-owned projects.
- Converting waste biomass into useful products can deliver climate, air quality and local economic benefits. Optimizing available residues to their highest and best end-uses is a key consideration. Clean, non-combustion solutions being developed in California include: mass timber, hydrogen and other liquid and gaseous fuels, and carbon dioxide removal.
- Carbon dioxide removal (“CDR”) is a key requirement for achieving a statewide net-zero emissions goal. Biomass is one of the only options that can provide CDR. Therefore, developing and growing the in-state capability for biomass carbon removal is an important need.
- Sustainable feedstock sourcing is key to ensuring biomass as a credible climate and ecological solution. California has highly robust forest and environmental protection rules to safeguard in-state project development. However, it is possible that new incentives could affect sourcing from other states or countries that allow purpose-grown or crop-based feedstocks. One potential guardrail is to provide streamlining and incentives for waste biomass only.
- There are a number of barriers to financing biomass projects in California. A key one is demonstrating access (i.e. via a contract or similar mechanism) to a reliable feedstock supply, notably from public lands. There are also limited available revenue incentives for projects. Addressing these two barriers was identified as fundamental to scaling the bioeconomy. Procurement mandates were identified as an option to help incubate new technologies.
- Public acceptance was identified as a barrier to biomass projects in the Central Valley, particularly due to the legacy of large-scale combustion. Technology developers must engage communities early and demonstrate how their project can deliver a variety of benefits including air quality (avoided field burning; clean production) and local economic development.
California’s wood waste crisis brought participants from around the state to Sacramento to discuss barriers and potential solutions. We were grateful for such a remarkable turnout. CSG and its coalition partners will seek to build on this progress and support agencies and the Administration in advancing sustainable and equitable biomass utilization policies in California.
For more information, please contact Sam Uden (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Amanda DeMarco (email@example.com). Thank you to our sponsors, without which the event would not have been possible.