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TERU Focus Report - Back from the Biomass Forum

Highlights of the California Biomass Collaborative's 8th Annual Forum
April 16, 2011 --

Introduction

The California Biomass Collaborative staged a two day conference on Biomass in the middle of UC Davis 2011 Energy Week, addressing a rapt audience of about 100 people … many of whom already knew each other, the usual suspects who have been hammering away at improving biomass utilization over the years. Shoulder-rubbing was encouraged, just enough actual progress was reported to keep everyone listening, and the food lay-out was GREAT.

Forest Day 1 

Day One worked through the twists and turns of Forest Biomass and Energy Production, going over what forest resources are out there, and detailing who controls what for access to that biomass. UC Berkeley's Bill Stewart helped by renewing our faith that highly controlled, monitored and permitted conversion to energy and fuels has GOT to be better than the conflagrations resulting from our protective policies. We got a solid dose of State regulations pertinent to biomass use from Air Board and PUC knowledge-holders Ryan McCarthy and Judith Ikle, giving hope of forestry related Cap and Trade off-sets, and noting that a couple of our coal QFs (Qualified Facilities) have been converting from dinosaur droppings to wood chips.

 

Region 9 EPA leveled the boom with a review of the agency’s recent Rules impacting biomass; Shaheerah Kelly did an admirable job on a painfully pertinent topic, and offered her help as an ombudsman on the tangle, a rare assist for R9. Coming in from DC was Ed Gee, USDA Forest Service Team Leader for Woody Biomass Utilization, with a slide deck worth the price of admission and suggesting good chances for Farm Bill funding to survive the budget cuts. Ed emphasized the economic importance of seeking combined cooling, heating and power (CCHP) projects, not just going for bioenergy generation.

 … Did I mention the FOOD? 

After lunch brought the quixotic discussion, “Is Use of Woody Biomass Carbon Neutral?” I’d call that debate a draw … but agree with U Washington’s Elaine O’Neill that fossil fuels are a one-way flow of carbon into the atmosphere, while our forests, oceans and soils constantly are in a two-way carbon flux.

 

Wrap-up for the day gave us a Prospective from Users of Woody Biomass, rousting some of our real Hands-On Gurus in the industry to provide a run-down of the feedstock supply chain (or lack of one), the Big BioPower justifications and survival statistics (pretty grim) and the New Hope that the decade-old Carbon Registry can finally see some serious traction via Cap and Trade off-sets. In the following Q&A session, it helped to clarify that “off-sets” came about when excess releases of carbon to the atmosphere could be avoided, when that measurable avoidance was proven both real and long term.

 

The real party started as the last talks were still taking place: a well stocked Reception drew the crown out of the auditorium into the hallway, and spilled over (sometimes literally) onto the outdoor patio. Once again, the Goodies were well thought out and very nicely presented.

 

Urban Day 2

 

Real Breakfast awaited early risers on Day 2 … protein, before hours of sitting … novel concept.

 

CalEPA's Anthony Eggert brought the welcome news that the California Renewable Energy Standard (RES) is out of Legislature and headed for the Governor’s desk. With the new RES, we can expect that the Low Carbon Fuel Standard will require Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to qualify, a stiff but laudable goal that we all hope doesn’t derail the program before it begins. Anthony stressed that use of waste biomass should show us the lowest possible carbon intensity; this perspective has long been supported by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels since we’re moving from a strong environmental liability to a strong benefit.

 

Marlene Sieck graced us with an excellent comparison of German policies and activities; Germany tends to lead the European Union (EU) community in most issues of improved waste management, biomass use, greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and sustainability. She noted that reduced landfilling and advanced energy recovery accounted for the same amount of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as had renewable energy, about 20%, and highlighted that the most CO2 equivalent reduction credits were given when a waste conversion plant also integrated combined heating and cooling with power production.

 

"Master of Recovery" Dr. Diaz provided Sustainable Practices to Live By, when managing organic waste, spiked with a few horror stories and backed by a couple of decades of Real World know-how. Reviewing Lessons Learned can be grueling, but is always a worth-while exercise for those hoping to not trip over the same old hazards.

 

Given the lead-in for LCA mandates, EPA's Susan Thorneloe's presentation on Life Cycle Metrics for Waste Management Scenarios provided a much appreciated introduction to the new Decision Support Tool (DTS) … what to do … what to do? Is a program for capturing landfill gas with conversion to energy better than anaerobic digestion to biogas, for GHG management of food waste sourced emissions? The DST calculates the "life cycle burden" of each step along the waste management pathway. The agency's own data crunching shows that GHG release is 2 to 6 times greater from even the best designed landfill gas to energy project.

 

CalRecycle's Jacques Franco led us into an update of conversion of municipal solid waste (MSW) residuals for renewable energy in California; as we could guess, almost all of the progress is in anaerobic digestion (AD) for conversion of food waste. AD food waste projects should really jump forward with CalRecycle’s recently published Draft Program EIR. Then we got a peek at Santa Barbara and San Jose out-in-front waste conversion programs. We learned earlier that waste to energy (WtE) makes 2 to 6 times less GHG emissions than landfilling; San Jose says using anaerobic digestion for biogas with power generation releases 12 times less GHG than landfilling. With biogas to fuel cell, that drops two orders of magnitude.

 

Dr. Bryan Jenkins led into the next panel, "Urban Organic Residuals' Place in California's Low Carbon Fuel and Renewable Energy Standards", by reminding the audience that the building was equipped with fire sprinklers, and to put our electronics under out tables if Panel sparks set off the in-door rainfall. And then the Fight Began … Not really, folks; everyone was cool and civilized. Well, almost. But we're saving that for the Living End of this Focus Report. It was just too good to lump in with the rest of the two-day session review.

 

And then there was the FOOD …

 

Next we tackled the Food and Beverage Industry's challenges and successes. After an Ag Energy career at the Energy Commission, Ricardo Amon is haunting UC Davis' halls working on policies, methods and models for food processing waste conversion, and highlighted benefits of co-conversion at our wastewater treatment plants. Following Ricardo's lead, Greg Kester really opened the door to wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operations and options, and Val Tiangco (also an Energy Commish ex-pat, now with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District) quickly laid out a whole world of projects SMUD is involved and or interested in. Did you know (I didn't) that SMUD's Consumnes Power Plant gets landfill gas all the way from Texas? There's this pipeline…

 

Day 2's wrap-up gave us Case Studies, and genteel owner Steven Gill modestly told of their world-class waste onion to biogas to energy operation in Ventura County. The $10.8MM project converts around 300,000 tons of onion waste during processing season, pumping 25 to 35 thousand gallons of waste slurry per day into a series of anaerobic digestion modules. The energy generated meets 95% of the processor’s load demand, and the project has a 6 year payback.

 

Southern California Edison rightly crowed over their recent successes in biomethane generation for pipeline injection; they've partnered with the City of Escondido using Xebec’s biogas upgrading to create "renewable natural gas". Batting clean-up: Jaclyn Marks from the CPUC laid out the Commission's Renewable Auction Mechanism, a toothy ending to a tasty day.

The Great Debate

Like I said earlier: the Really Big Fun was the four-way moderated brawl between Jeff Hahn for Covanta, Chip Clements for Plasco, John Sheers for CEERT, and Scott Smithline speaking for CAW over what sort of MSW conversion Is and Is Not, Should and Should Not, MUST NOW or NEVER CAN be considered "renewable". 

Let's break it down: Dr. Jenkins had given each combatant Four Questions in advance (we didn't get to know the queries until Show Time). And pardon the paraphrasing, 'cause I still don't have the Exact Questions in hand as this is being written up …

 

Q1: Are thermal Conversion Technologies (CTs) ready for Prime Time implementation, renewable energy certification and permitting as acceptable resource recovery methods in California, and if not, why the &%@*! not?? (I warned you that I'd be paraphrasing…)

 

Q2: Do CTs offer improved GHG reduction for MSW management, compared to constantly paying to stomp our resources into a Big Hole, frantically trying to catch the methane that's escaping, and then forever paying to maintain the whole pile? (Oh wait, they called that "Landfilling")

 

Q3: In California regulations, direct combustion of MSW is considered "transformation", and as such the electricity generated is not considered "renewable". California now seems to favor gasification over combustion WtE. Is this approach Good, Bad or Ugly?

 

Q4: What is "Zero Waste", now and in the future? How does this concept play out for carbon management, environmental impact minimization, GHG reduction, recycling, composting, packaging, manufacturer's responsibility, the Inconvenience of Change to societal habits … and what does it all mean, Alfie?

 

I'll tell ya, the back-and-forth got me seriously dizzy, the detailed responses had us all tuned in, and the room temperature went up like at a Saturday Night bar-fight. Nobody left the room.

 

Now given the Players, you might rightly guess the jist of an awful lot of the responses; everybody pretty much stuck to their Party Line. Yet these guys are nobody's fools, all very experienced and deeply committed, and some excellent insight came from each in turn. Let's just hit some of the better zingers, by the Numbers.

 

Q1: CTs for Prime Time –

 

CEERT expressed honest suspicion that there was always a lot of over-promise, and under-performance, and that when it came down to it, cleanliness was always a matter of the daily Operations & Maintenance (We agree: you can run any system well, or poorly).

 

Covanta reflected that with the rash of new EPA regs landing on the Industry, the tableau was changing toward a far more tightly controlled framework, establishing clear differences between older technologies and advanced, state-of-the-art conversion.

 

CAW voiced the common concerns that (a) implementing CTs would disadvantage our  Recycling Industry, and (b) that the difference between "incineration" and “gasification” was in reality only going from One-Step Burning to Two-Step Burning. (We sorta agree, but wish CAW had followed up with some thought about what happens between Step One and Step Two … like the ability to intercept, test and modify that syngas prior to final use – combustive or otherwise - makes ALL the difference in the world, and defines "conversion").

 

Plasco offered that of course CTs are ready for the Big Time, but much remains to be done; piping that syngas to feed a Fuel Cell would take the currently minor emissions down to almost Zero.

 

Q2: CTs and GHG Reduction

 

CAW made it clear that both thermal and microbial conversion technologies offer better GHG control than landfilling, but that with 15% of our MSW being Food Waste, we need to put the current focus on getting anaerobic digestion systems up and running. The next most common biomass in MSW is wood, and it will always be a good candidate for thermal conversion (of course, waste-sourced wood is an EPA sore spot right now, as we've Reported).

 

CEERT agreed that AD was best for food waste, but cautioned that we need more attention to both the data and the assumptions: CTs may be best for energy, and still not be the best answer overall. There was the reminder to Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle, before we consider last-step alternatives to disposal (Alternatives like, perhaps Waste Conversion for Resource Recovery?).

 

Plasco argued for heuristics: CTs fit in at Community Scale, and greatly reduce transport impacts and costs, while everything else requires a whole lot of send-it-over-there. When we manage the post-recycling residuals locally at scales of maybe 200 to 400 tons per day, we avoid shipping tonnage to those remote Big Holes in the Ground.

 

Covanta laid down the bet that once we really take a holistic approach and internalize all the associated impacts, cradle to grave, local conversion will come out on top.

 

Q3: Conversion, Transformation, and the Adequacy of State Standards

 

Covanta led in with the simple statement that you can't tell if our standards are inadequate or not, because they just keep changing. Developers and Agencies alike can never tell whether what is proposed today will meet the standards by the time it is built, because our regulatory platform is build on shifting sand.

 

Plasco lit into the PRC "criteria", calling for performance based, not prescriptive, set of standards and conditions … then announced their New Baby: both CalRecycle and CEC had pre-certified their conversion technology for their Salinas Valley project as an "eligible renewable energy generation facility."

 

CAW offered the ominous if obscure opinion that "if you want Diversion Credit, you are going to have to go Above and Beyond" … (beyond what, please tell us)

 

About here, CEERT showed signs of Angst … "What is the Policy Basis? WHO KNOWS??" … and gave the Dire Warning of the Day: "The Environmental Community is Loading Up, and this isn't gonna be any fun, no fun at all…" (watch Teru Talk for more on this, fo' sure)

 

To which Plasco (God bless ‘em) replied, "Oh, I don't know … I happen to think it's gonna be a whole lotta fun …" (queue Wild Cheering).

 

Q4: Zero Waste

 

After the confetti began to settle, Covanta offered that Zero Waste must be a community-specific determination taking into account real-world local economics as well as lofty societal goals.

 

Plasco asked, where do you draw the line? When is the cost of returning that last drop of resource back into the marketplace by Reduce-Reuse-Recycle just too much? Perhaps in these crunch times, most communities are already past that magic line. Right now, we need "every arrow in our quiver" to get to Zero, and that has to include CTs.

 

CAW met Covanta's earlier bet, that on an LCA basis, Recycling still is less costly than Conversion, and upped the ante with the need to put less in that Black Bin in the first place.

 

CEERT agreed on that point: Make Less Waste. Oh, and while we're at it, remap the entire MSW management scenario for this state. Then came the Reality Check, one a lot of us recognize in our Heart of Hearts - this is a political decision, and we just don't know yet what our New Governor is going to do.

 

Parting Shots

 

Take it to the Street - Clearly, we have needed to get these differences of opinion out in the open; they’ve festered in the dark and damp recesses for far too long. Kudos are due to the CBC for the whole Magilla, but especially for the Great Debate. And honestly, folks, I have to hand it to all four Panel Contestants … ah, Participants. Well done, one and all.

 

More Time to Gab - I just couldn't help thinking that we would all have appreciated more time to gab. Consider just how many like-minded Biomass fanatics were all gathered in one room for two days: a fine treat. This presented a rare opportunity to catch up with Old Souls, and a much needed chance to meet a whole new cadre of bio-folks. Maybe "Break-Out Sessions" might have helped, you know, where there's this stand-up sign on a round table calling out the Topic of Discussion that everyone ignores, whiles they busily trade cards and kibitz. But when?

 

10/13/2011 Update: Presentations and video recordings of the 8th Annual California Biomass Collaborative forum are now available online:

Urban Organic Residuals panel questions


Urban Organic Residuals panel video recording

Forum agenda and all presentations

  

 

© Teru Talk by JDMT, Inc 2011. All rights reserved.

You are free to reprint and use this report as long as no changes are made to its content or references and credit is given to the author, Michael Theroux. http://www.terutalk.com

 
 

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