Biomass management has been a neglected climate problem in California. That is, until recently – when the 2022 Scoping Plan identified both the significant scale of the biomass challenge and importance of mobilizing organic waste to provide clean fuels and carbon dioxide removal in a net-zero economy.
In response, the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force established a working group of multiple state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and external advisors to develop an implementation strategy. The initial draft of this strategy, which includes 18 recommendations, can be viewed here.
In this blog post we briefly recap California’s biomass challenge before summarizing the top-five recommendations from the strategy. These include near-term solutions such as bolstering existing bioenergy and workforce programs as well as permit streamlining for brownfields. There are also solutions to enable sustainable biomass utilization at scale, including the development of regional feedstock supply plans as well as incentives for clean fuels under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
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Every year, California produces tens of millions of tons of forest and agricultural residues that are commonly open burned or left in piles to decompose, resulting in substantial greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions. As the state ramps up its forest treatments, these impacts will become even more severe. A statewide strategy to collect and convert waste biomass into products such as hydrogen or sustainable aviation fuel can avoid this major and increasing emissions source, support economy-wide decarbonization by displacing fossil fuels in transportation and industry, and drive economic development in rural communities. In the case of forests, it can also help to defray the high cost of vegetation management, enabling the state to successfully reduce catastrophic wildfire risk.
The 2022 Scoping Plan identified the importance of utilizing biomass to support California’s climate goals. To put this finding into action, a stakeholder group comprised of multiple state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and external experts was assembled to develop priority actions on how to expand California’s forest bioeconomy (with forest biomass being the largest waste stream). CSG and Sierra Business Council were selected as lead external partners to the Work Group. Last week, the initial draft strategy was presented to the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force. Here we summarize the Work Group’s analysis of the problem before highlighting the top-five recommendations. For a list of the participating public agencies and external partners, see the bottom of this blog post.
Estimating the scale of the problem
As an initial step, the Work Group reviewed the current status of biomass utilization and wood processing in California. It is estimated that about 1 million dry tons of forest biomass are currently processed into energy each year in California. The total amount of biomass available for utilization is expected to increase substantially as the state increases its forest treatments to reduce wildfire risk. Recent reports estimate that forest treatments at the scale of one million acres per year (state goal) will yield somewhere from 5 to 15 million dry tons of waste biomass – at least 5x and potentially up to almost 15x the amount currently processed in the state today (Table 1). These estimates underscore the pressing need to expand biomass infrastructure and wood processing facilities in California.
* Instead of biomass availability per year, in some cases estimates are provided on a bone dry ton/acre basis only. For example, in a letter to CARB the U.S. Forest Service identified that, on average, 10-25 BDTs of forest biomass would accrue per acre treated. For hyperlinks to sources, see footnote below.
^ Annualized estimate for this figure not available
Barriers to project development in California
The Work Group identified a number of obstacles that prevent or discourage wood processing facility development in California. These obstacles span the forest products supply chain (Figure 1), including: forest management issues such as the amount and quality of raw material and ability to assure predictable annual supply; harvesting and transportation issues such as rail availability and road quality and quantity; various factors related to the wood processing facility itself such as project siting, permitting and financing; and finally the accessibility, stability and maturity of end-use markets. Overall, this assessment provided the background and context to identify the policy recommendations.
Priority actions to enable a forest bioeconomy in California
The Work Group identified 18 draft recommendations to enable a sustainable forest bioeconomy in California. The top-five are highlighted below. Further deliberation regarding the recommendations is anticipated to occur throughout spring, with the strategy scheduled to be finalized by summer 2023.
- Increase state funding for business and workforce development.
Existing forest biomass grant programs have a proven track record of supporting wood utilization business and workforce development in California. This recommendation aims to increase funding amounts for these programs, including for CAL FIRE’s Wood Products and Bioenergy Grant Program ($30M per year for 7 years) and IBank’s Climate Catalyst Fund ($50M as a one-off instalment).
- Develop regionally based biomass and wood availability plans. A key planning challenge is addressing variability in biomass amount and type across locations. This recommendation would develop regionally specific biomass utilization targets. It would use this information to then support strategic regional investments, such as in advancing feedstock supply strategies currently being piloted by the Office of Planning and Research to enable project financing.
- Expand and modernize existing forest biomass-electricity programs. Biomass-electricity is a shovel-ready solution that can support near-term and high-hazard biomass utilization. This recommendation includes various changes to support both the BioMAT and BioRAM programs, including by requiring Community Choice Aggregators to comply with program mandates as well as increasing the overall procurement requirement on the BioRAM program by 100 MW.
- Streamline permitting for wood utilization on brownfields. Lengthy project review and permitting is a key barrier to developing new clean energy in California. This recommendation would provide permit streamlining for eligible wood processing facilities, including those that utilize waste biomass from wildfire risk reduction, public safety or forest restoration projects, are developed on brownfield sites, and are not located in disadvantaged communities.
- Develop Low Carbon Fuel Standard pathways for forest biomass-derived fuels. Clean fuels such as hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuel and renewable natural gas are high-value biomass conversion options with large end-markets that are needed for state climate goals. However, incentives to support the deployment of these newer technologies are needed. This recommendation directs CARB and stakeholders to develop guidance, a report, or other documentation such as a design-based pathway under the LCFS to incentivize fuels created using waste feedstocks from forest management (including forest slash and thinnings).
For each recommendation, the Work Group estimated a projected annual impact on biomass utilization. For the above priority actions, #1 and #5 are estimated to have a high impact (i.e., greater than 1 million dry tons of annual biomass utilization). Recommendations #2, #3 and #4 are estimated to have a medium impact (i.e., between 100,000 and 1 million dry tons of annual biomass utilization).
The other two policy recommendations (out of the 18) that are estimated to have a high impact include changes to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program as well as the development of a feedstock tracking system (chain-of-custody) to support programs such as the LCFS and RFS.
The findings of the 2022 Scoping Plan followed by the establishment of this Work Group mark a promising shift in state policy on biomass – a largely neglected, but significant, climate problem. However, further work is needed to not only finalize but then support implementation of the recommendations. Having played a lead role in developing the policies now viewed as high impact priority actions, including notably on regional feedstock supply as well as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, CSG will continue to provide technical advice and support to implementing agencies where it can.
For more information, please contact Sam Uden (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Amanda DeMarco (email@example.com).
 It is estimated that 83.1 MMCF of forest biomass was converted into electricity in 2016. Converting to BDT: 1 Bone Dry Unit (BDU) = 96 cubic feet. Therefore, 83,100,000/96 = 865,625 BDUs. 1 BDU = 1.2 BDTs. Therefore, 865,625*1.2 = 1,038,750 BDTs. This is an annual figure. Note that this amount excludes the conversion of mill residuals to bioenergy.
 Getting to Neutral (2020); Cabiyo et al. (2021); CARB Scoping Plan (2022); California Biomass Collaborative (2015).
List of participating agencies
- Department of Conservation (Co-Chair)
- United States Forest Service (Co-Chair)
- Governor’s Office of Planning and Research
- Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development
- California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
- California Energy Commission
- California Air Resources Board
- California Public Utilities Commission
- Sierra Nevada Conservancy
- Joint Institute for Wood Products Innovation
- California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery
- California Department of Housing and Community Development
- Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians
List of external partners
- Conservation Strategy Group (Lead Partner)
- Sierra Business Council (Lead Partner)
- Bioenergy Association of California
- California Forestry Association
- The Nature Conservancy
- Blue Forest Conservation
- CLERE Inc.
- The Watershed Center
- California Biomass Energy Alliance
- Rural County Representatives of California
- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
- Southern California Gas
- Pacific Gas and Electric
- UC Cooperative Extension