Trees are dying in the Sierra at modern-day unprecedented rates, posing elevated fire danger and creating health, water and air quality concerns, but a possible solution to rid the forest of dead and dying trees is getting short shrift, officials say.
California’s biomass industry is set up regionally to turn agricultural waste into electricity while eliminating open burning. But many local biomass plants have closed or are closing soon because it costs less to produce electricity with solar and wind, which get subsidies that are not available to biomass.
As contracts expired with investor-owned utilities, biomass plants have shut down in Delano, Mendota, Firebaugh, Dinuba and Terra Bella, leaving a handful in the San Joaquin Valley: Malaga, Chowchilla, El Nido in Merced County and Mount Poso north of Bakersfield. There are plans to build smaller biomass plants in the Sierra to address tree mortality, but critics say they won’t accommodate dead tree disposal needs.
Environmentalists say biomass plants pollute the air and aren’t sorry to see them go. But the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s executive director says biomass plants are preferable to open agricultural burning or a raging forest conflagration that could pump huge amounts of unfiltered smoke and particulates airborne – as did the recent Erskine Fire and the Rough Fire last year.
At its peak, the Rough Fire was emitting 25 times more particulate matter, 105 times more fine particulate matter, eight times more nitrogen oxides and 16 times more volatile organic compounds than occurs on a normal day in the Valley, said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Such fires, fueled by dead and dying trees, cost tens of millions of dollars to fight and create a potential for health problems and lost lives and property.
“The state has made it a big priority to get rid of these dead trees, and one way they wanted to do it is to send them to biomass facilities,” Sadredin said. “But they are not doing what they should to keep biomass facilities afloat.”
Electricity generated by biomass is costlier than other options such as solar and wind, a concern to state and public utilities commission officials who are responsible to ratepayers, said Julee Malinowski Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance.
There are all these incentives for wind and solar but they cut them all out for biomass; it doesn’t make sense.
Tom Wheeler, Madera County supervisor
And diverting organic materials to biomass plants helps the state meet certain air quality and landfill goals.
California requires a 50 percent reduction of landfill waste from cities and counties compared to 1990. The state has set a policy goal of 75 percent reduction by 2020, but it’s not mandated.
“It’s truly a no-brainer because there are a number of well-located (biomass) facilities that are underutilized,” Malinowski Ball said. “It means millions of tons of organic material diverted from the least favorable environmental outcomes, such as landfilling and burning.”
Meanwhile, a large supply of organic material looms in the Sierra.
There are an estimated 66 million dead trees in California’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service has cut down 87,590 in the Sierra, Sequoia and Stanislaus national forests, the areas that are most severely hit by drought and bark beetle infestation. Thousands more have been felled by Caltrans, electric utilities and other state and local agencies.
Trees are being cut down strategically based on their potential to create a problem, such as being along roadways or in danger of hitting utility lines or falling on homes, said Kim Carr, Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director for Climate and Energy, who also sits on the state’s Tree Mortality Task Force.
“There are thousands of acres of dead and dying trees, and there aren’t the resources to cut all of them,” she said.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better, said Len Nielson, Cal Fire’s forester in the Madera-Merced-Mariposa Unit.
“It’s a curve that is getting steeper and steeper,” he said. “At some point we are going to run out of trees and bugs, and the increase will taper off.”
In more than 100 years of recordkeeping, California’s forests have never had this level of tree mortality, said Sheri Smith, regional entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service.
Minutes south of Fresno, Rio Bravo plant officials in Malaga are getting wood chips from the forest, said plant manager Rick Spurlock. The plant sells 24-plus megawatts daily generated from agricultural and forest wood waste, powering an equivalent of 24,000 homes. But the higher rate it’s been receiving to produce electricity for Pacific Gas & Electric expires at the end of October.
Rio Bravo’s pricing arrangement is one of several ending this year. After that, those plants will not be cost-efficient enough to operate, and so there will be fewer options for disposing of agricultural and wood waste locally. Meanwhile, air pollution control officials are concerned that closing Rio Bravo will lead to more open burning or increased landfill use, and will limit options for disposing of dead and dying trees.
Even though the plant’s contract with PG&E doesn’t expire until March 2019, prices that allow biomass plants to operate profitably end in October, Spurlock said.
Earlier this year, the plant got a three-month price extension through PG&E and the state Public Utilities Commission. All pricing is confidential, but when the existing rate expires the new one will be less than half, estimates Malinowski Ball.
That price, Spurlock said, “does not cover what it costs us to make the power, so the plant would be forced to curtail operations.”
PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the utility bought 92 percent of the state’s biomass-produced electricity and extended the higher-priced contract for Rio Bravo and a second biomass plant in Tuolumne County to dispose of dead or dying trees.
Boyles said the higher rates “are temporary, interim solutions” to address Gov. Jerry Brown’s tree mortality emergency proclamation.
“We are sensitive to local issues and job impacts,” Boyles said. “We are also sensitive to price impacts to our customers. Biomass is considerably higher in price than other renewable resources.”
The most recent Valley plant to close was in Delano, which was the largest and had a potential to produce 50 megawatts daily. It joined plants in Mendota, Dinuba, Terra Bella and Firebaugh in recent closures because of expired contracts.
Spurlock said Rio Bravo’s shutdown will result in the loss of 25 plant jobs and a $3.5 million annual payroll, as well as annual plant expenditures of $2 million for maintenance and another $5.5 million in fuel purchases, wood and agricultural waste. Overall, he said, there are about 100 employees in the plant’s supply chain.
And, despite concerns that Rio Bravo pollutes the air, Spurlock said critics should consider the alternative.
“We are burning 35 tons of wood an hour and you see nothing come off,” he said, pointing to a smokestack behind him. “If you lit a stack of wood right here more smoke would come out.”
It’s unfair to compare the cost of generating electricity by biomass plants to solar- and wind-generated electricity, Spurlock said. Solar and wind energy companies employ fewer people and have fewer expenses, and also benefit from significantly larger tax credits and property tax exemptions.
The California Public Utilities Commission is proposing awarding biomass contracts totaling 50 megawatts to improve forest health.
Spurlock said Rio Bravo might snag utilities contracts through the utilities commission later this year, but the contracts will max out at 20 megawatts for PG&E and Southern California Edison and 10 megawatts for San Diego Gas & Electric. Meanwhile, 190 megawatts of biomass-generated electricity is going offline statewide later this year, officials say.
It’s not like we’re trying to make a lot of extra money; it just costs more money to make power this way.
Larry Osborne, biomass plants general manager
Larry Osborne, general manager of the idled Dinuba and Firebaugh plants, said there’s no way to operate biomass without a subsidy like those provided for solar and wind energy. The Dinuba plant closed last October, and Firebaugh’s was shut down in 2012.
“It’s not like we’re trying to make a lot of extra money; it just costs more money to make power this way,” he said.
In Mendota and Delano, two plants owned by Covanta were closed when contracts expired at the end of 2014 and 2015. At one point, Covanta had five California biomass plants producing in excess of 110 megawatts. It has none now.
Opportunities to reopen will rely on subsidies and whether the state utilities commission contracts are lengthy enough to justify reopening, said James Regan, director of communications for New Jersey-based Covanta.
The 50 megawatts in biomass contracts won’t be enough incentive for Covanta to restart its plants because there are no guarantees for long-term profit.
“It’s about knowing you can operate for five to 10 years that would make it viable for us to reopen,” Regan said.
He said biomass should be examined through a different prism than solar or wind. It should be viewed as an alternative to landfills or burn piles that will pollute or allow wood to rot, Regan said. And biomass should be judged as a power source that uses recycled material.
“I think the benefits are being overlooked,” he said.
The Rio Bravo plant, built in 1988, underwent a $10 million renovation eight years ago. Each hour, it turns 35 tons of wood from agricultural waste and the forest into power sufficient for a city nearly the size of Clovis.
Spurlock said the plant filters 98 percent of key pollutants that would have come from open field burning – nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon dioxide and particulates – out of the the air. Sadredin puts the figure between 80 percent and 90 percent. Environmentalists say it’s worse than that.
Environmentalists say biomass plants are unnecessary and could be hazardous for people living near them.
Delano resident Lupe Martinez, assistant director with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said the biomass plant at the southern edge of his city left an acrid-smelling fog or cloud late at night or early in the morning some days.
In the 25 years the biomass plant was operating, Martinez said, the health effects weren’t clear.
“I ask myself if there would be such a high level of health problems if it wasn’t here,” he said. “How many more asthma cases and respiratory problems do we have in Delano because of it?”
Delano has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and community leaders made attracting jobs a priority. But Martinez questions the cost.
“We all need jobs, but we need to do it in an environmentally friendly way,” he said.
Polluting companies are often attracted to less affluent communities, Martinez said.
But despite being critical of the plant, he admits that biomass also has benefits because “I don’t want the growers burning.”
Others are more critical of biomass and say alternatives are available now. Composting is less polluting, whereas trucking tree waste from the mountains several times a day worsens air quality.
“They do have to clear dead trees off roads, away from power lines and structures, that’s a priority, but the rest of the trees should stay in the forest and break down right there,” said Tom Frantz, a Shafter farmer and leader of the Association of Irritated Residents.
A standing dead tree that’s bare of needles isn’t as hazardous as a recently dead, dying or live tree with all its needles, he said.
“I don’t think we increase the fire danger by leaving the dead trees except when they just die off and their needles are extremely flammable,” Frantz said.
More efforts should be made to compost and put remnants back into the soil, he said. Chipping dead trees in the forest and leaving the chips on the forest floor is constructive, too, so there’s no need to transport chips to produce electricity, Frantz said.
Valley Air District fines against biomass facilities since 2010
If agricultural burning should return to the Valley, Frantz said, it would only occur when environmental conditions allow it.
But Sadredin, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s executive director, said open burning would cause more air quality problems than emissions from biomass plants.
He said biomass plants were a major factor in the 80 percent reduction in open burning since 2005.
Sadredin endorses more use of biomass plants, even though the air district has identified some as polluters. The air district has fined Valley plant owners about $475,000 in the past six years. The Malaga plant wasn’t fined during that period. The Mendota plant was fined $2,100 and the Delano plant was fined about $108,000, according to air district records.
But, Sadredin added, “If we don’t have a viable biomass industry or reasonable cost-effective alternatives to open burning, then we have no choice but to roll back our prohibitions against open burning.”
Environmentalists, he said, believe cost-effective “non-burning” alternatives exist but aren’t being used.
There are pilot programs underway, Sadredin said, that allow fuel production from agricultural waste, but none has proved to be cost-effective on a widespread basis.
One idea is composting in warehouse-size buildings with piping that would “gasify waste with little or no emissions,” Sadredin said. But such a plan would take hundreds of Costco-size buildings with specialized piping to divert gases – an expensive proposition, he said.
In addition, Sadredin said, transporting waste to composting sites also produces pollutants.
The ideal scenario, Sadredin said, would be to have enough biomass available to handle both agricultural waste and dead trees from the forest.
“We have all that investment sitting idle,” he said. “We need to find a way to bring those back to life rather than starting from scratch.”
Richard Thornton expanded his tree and orchard removal business, Right-A-Way Construction, and calls it The Wood Morgue on Dinkey. But it can’t stay open if Rio Bravo closes.
In a 5-acre clearing off Dinkey Creek Road behind signs for “The Fishing Club,” Thornton collects bark beetle-infested trees and woody debris from Southern California Edison contractors, mountain residents and their paid contractors in the Shaver Lake area.
The wood is placed in separate piles before it is run through a massive grinder and converted into wood chips. The chips are then shipped to Rio Bravo and turned into electricity.
“If they go away, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Thornton said. “There’s no use in chipping it; you may as well burn it.”
Thornton isn’t running a high-profit business because the wood has virtually no value, but the volume seems potentially endless. It costs about $400 to transport a 25-ton load from Shaver Lake to Rio Bravo, he said.
The amount Thornton charges to chip the trees pays himself and three employees, as well as the cost of transportation to Fresno.
I’d buy another grinder because I have the work for it, but that’s only if I know I have a home for the product.
Richard Thornton, owner of Right-A-Way Construction
He is ready to open a second location near Meadow Lakes, about 25 minutes west, but would need to buy another grinder, which could cost close to $1 million.
“I’d buy another grinder because I have the work for it, but that’s only if I know I have a home for the product,” Thornton said, referring to Rio Bravo.
Riley Allen, a seventh-generation logger from Auberry who takes wood to Thornton, said the Sierra needs more businesses like The Wood Morgue.
“Without grinders and what he has and without a place to take it, everyone would be up a creek,” Allen said.
Richard Bagley, president of the Highway 168 Firesafe Council, said Thornton and the Rio Bravo plant are providing a valuable service to Fresno County’s Sierra residents.
“Everybody benefits from that being available,” Bagley said. “Right now, there would be no place for people to take their material without biomass.”
Clearing out dead trees from the forests remains a great concern for many officials because of the potential for cataclysmic fires.
The Erskine Fire in Kern County last month spread quickly, in large part, because of dead dry brush, dead trees and high wind, fire officials say.
The June 23 fire took more than two weeks to contain, destroyed 250 homes and killed two people. It also led to more breathing difficulties for residents.
Making matters worse, Kern Valley Hospital was forced to close.
When the hospital was evacuated it had 69 patients in its skilled nursing facility and 10 in acute care. In addition to low water pressure, phone lines were down and most cell phone service was compromised, said Tim McGlew, chief executive officer for the Kern Valley Healthcare District.
“The fire was literally coming right at us,” said McGlew. “We knew we were in trouble when we saw the way the wind was blowing.”
The hospital closure left the local ambulance company scrambling and American Red Cross officials as a medical lifeline for residents struggling to breathe. Ambulances arrived from Bakersfield and shuttled patients to hospitals along with county buses.
We got inhalers, nebulizers, anything to help the residents; it’s been the old, the young, everyone has had problems because of the air quality.
Jessica Piffero, American Red Cross regional communication director
Nine employees and a half dozen hospital volunteers were among the 250 families that lost their homes, McGlew said.
Steve Davis, chief operating officer with Liberty Ambulance in Ridgecrest, said the 911 calls were overwhelming. Many were for respiratory complaints.
A volunteer fire chief in Inyo County, Davis said he had never seen a fire like Erskine. He said it was decades in the making because of overgrowth and dead trees.
“I thought I was driving through Armageddon,” he said recalling his first trip into the fire zone. “It was dark and there were 3- to 6-foot flames on either side of me.”
Residents reported problems that included asthma, COPD, allergies and other breathing issues, said Jessica Piffero, regional communication director for the American Red Cross.
“Since Day One it was a problem,” she said. “We got inhalers, nebulizers, anything to help the residents; it’s been the old, the young, everyone has had problems because of the air quality.”
As firefighters gained the upper hand on the fire, the number of breathing problems subsided. Some residents, Piffero said, left Kern Valley with plans to return when it’s safe.
But even after the fire, breathing issues could persist as residents sift through debris.
“We are doing what we can to provide appropriate masks and gloves for them,” Piffero said.
Smoke and flames aren’t the only hazard that massive forest fires can generate.
Steve Haugen, the Kings River watermaster, has been observing runoff from last year’s massive Rough Fire in eastern Fresno County.
It could take three to five years before it’s known whether water, debris and sediment running off in the area of the Rough Fire have caused problems.
He estimates that up to a quarter of the 150,000 acres scarred in the Rough Fire is a severe burn area, where the ground was basically cooked, he said, which means it will take longer for grasses and shrubs to re-grow. That means more sediment and debris will be in waterways.
“After a burn you have changed the character of the watershed and it takes quite a bit of time to heal,” Haugen said.
The first winter passed without significant storms, which reduced the amount of debris going into waterways and eventually to Pine Flat Lake, where water is moved into the Kings River channel and is then diverted for drinking water and agriculture.
After a burn you have changed the character of the watershed and it takes quite a bit of time to heal.
Steve Haugen, Kings River watermaster
But if large storms come, it could drive more debris into waterways, he said.
A floating debris barrier is in place at Pine Flat Lake that limits areas for recreation. The barrier catches large chunks of debris, such as logs and limbs, before they can get to the main portion of the reservoir.
Debris can take up space that would normally be filled with water. In some cases, nearly 1 percent of reservoirs have been filled by fire debris, space that would otherwise be filled with water. At Pine Flat, that’s about 8,000 acre-feet.
Fine sediment creates turbid water that also takes its toll.
It can affect water filters at treatment plants as well as in-home water filters. On farms, turbid water doesn’t go into the ground as quickly, potentially affecting crop growth and water recharge, and micro-sprayers also are less effective.
“It’s little things, those kinds of things you really can’t put your finger on,” Haugen said. “It’s small, incremental change, but every one of them has a cost.”
Bills and hearings
The crisis has the attention of lawmakers. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, held a hearing in Clovis in June to discuss tree mortality and followed up with a trip to the Sierra.
He said he plans congressional hearings in September to further explore tree mortality issues and to develop a federal disaster declaration for the Sierra, which could bring aid to residents.
Biomass, he said, can help clear the forests.
“I’m suggesting that on a short-term basis this could involve a subsidy and utilize this resource to get dead trees out of the forest,” Costa said. “In the meantime we need to keep our fingers crossed that we don’t have a repeat of the Rim or the Rough fires.”
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said he will introduce legislation in coming weeks to propose a “categorical exclusion” exempting contractors from federal environmental rules that forbid cutting of dead trees in the most severely affected areas.
“We have environmental laws that stopped cutting with the express promise it would improve forest ecology,” McClintock said.
It didn’t, he said.
Historically, the forest maintained 20 to 100 trees per acre, but the California average in national forests is 266, said McClintock, whose district extends south along the spine of the Sierra into Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties.
Those dead trees should be put to productive use, he said.
“We have more than 60 million trees available,” McClintock said. “It’s ludicrous that we have forests filled with dead trees and policies that keep us from removing them.”
In a report issued last October, the U.S. Forest Service said that fighting wildfires comprised more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget in 2014 compared with 16 percent in 1995. The forest service study expected wildfire expenses will continue growing.
Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, proposed spending $70 million to keep existing biomass plants open. The benefits would be decreased potential for larger fires, fewer health effects and less money spent on fighting fires. Battling the Rough Fire last year cost more than $100 million.
Money set aside for biomass in Assembly Bill 590
He’s invited fellow legislators from across California to his Lassen County-based district to see the forest devastation and reminds them that much of their water comes from Northern California, water that can be tainted by large fires.
Dahle’s bill passed but was not funded. The idea, he said, was to offset costs of keeping biomass plants open by using the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds.
“We need to come in and fill that gap, but they didn’t fund it,” Dahle said. “I was asking for money to keep the plants running” near areas with the most tree mortality.
The state, he said, has spent $3 billion on fire suppression since 2008, an average of about $400 million per year.
Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, said incorporating biomass into the electricity grid is common-sense policy.
“A fire is going to burn, so take the material and put it to good use in a biomass plant and generate electricity,” he said.
Although larger biomass plants in the Valley are closing, plans are underway to build small plants in communities close to high-danger zones with California Energy Commission funds. But those plants can’t accommodate the number of trees cut down or dead in the forests. The energy commission has $15 million available for forest biomass projects.
Locally, a 2-megawatt plant is proposed in North Fork and a 1-megawatt plant is proposed in Mariposa.
In the meantime, seven plants supplying 190 megawatts of electricity to the grid will go offline by the end of October because of lowered rates, said Carr, Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director for Climate and Energy, who sits on the state’s Tree Mortality Task Force.
Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who also is a member of the 11-county task force, said those new biomass plants will be too small to make a dent in the dead wood load. He said 100 times more wood waste is ready for biomass than the plants in North Fork or Mariposa will be able to handle when they open in 2018.
That’s where the closed plants in Delano, Dinuba and Firebaugh could play a role, he said.
Wheeler points out that utility ratepayers also are taxpayers who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to fight more dangerous fires and pay higher insurance rates because of fire destruction.
“You have no control over a fire or its costs,” he said. Meanwhile, Wheeler said, “there are all these incentives for wind and solar but they cut them all out for biomass; it doesn’t make sense.”
Electricity generation from biomass facilities that could curtail operations
The Public Utilities Commission’s proposed award of biomass contracts totaling 50 megawatts isn’t near enough, critics say.
Covanta’s plants once produced more than 100 megawatts of electricity, 75 coming from plants in Delano and Mendota and another 38 from three plants in Northern California.
In the months before shutting down, company spokesman Regan said, the plants were getting more wood waste from farms due to the drought.
“We were seeing 50 percent more clearings just because there wasn’t water,” he said. “Citrus trees were being brought in like crazy. Are you going to just burn it?”
Meanwhile, dead trees are stacked on private property or left along roadsides throughout the Sierra because there’s no place for them. Handmade signs that announce wood dumping is prohibited are ignored at turnouts along Highway 168 near Shaver Lake.
If all 66 million trees were cut down and sent to the Dinuba plant, said Osborne, general manager of the Dinuba and Firebaugh plants, it could operate for 1,674 years.
Osborne said he is working on bid packages for the state Public Utilities Commission to produce some of the megawatt contracts at the Dinuba plant, which he said could open in two to four weeks once contracts are approved.
Said Osborne, “I’m getting a lot of calls from people who will give us the fuel because they have nowhere else to go, but I don’t want to end up with wood that I can’t use.”