TERU Focus Report - Back from the Biomass Forum
Highlights of the California Biomass Collaborative's 8th Annual
April 16, 2011 --
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
… 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
"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
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
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…)
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.