During the past five years, more than 4.5 million acres of California forests have been impacted by wildfire. Many predict escalating size and severity of fires unless increased forest restoration treatments are implemented. These treatments reduce the severity and scale of wildfires by removing the excess biomass ‘fuel’ built up in the forests. They also reduce the potential for severe greenhouse gas emission events, and provide opportunities to produce electricity.

This 12-minute video presents a common vision of resource professionals, researchers, government representatives, and elected officials for improving the health of our forests through the removal and management of forest biomass.

In this context, forest biomass consists of small-diameter trees and brush removed in forest restoration projects, the branches and tops of harvested trees (slash), and diseased or insect-infested wood removed for public safety and fire risk reduction.  This waste biomass has become even more prevalent with the 129 million trees have that have died across the state due to drought and bark beetles since 2010.Currently, a major portion of this biomass is piled and burned in the forest, but it could represent a huge untapped resource for the generation of heat and power. Use of biomass materials to generate energy is another way to maximize the air quality and greenhouse gas reduction benefits the forest sector can provide. (See Emission Reductions from Woody Biomass Waste for Energy as an Alternative to Open Burning.) Utilizing the biomass in a controlled bioenergy facility instead of open burning can reduce emissions of black carbon by up to 99 percent.

Recent innovations in biomass energy technology provide an opportunity for the environmentally sustainable use of excess forest biomass to create renewable energy for California while increasing the resilience of the state’s valuable forests and protecting the Region’s communities from large, damaging wildfire. Development of additional forest bioenergy power generation in the Sierra Nevada Region will provide a market for excess biomass, which can help increase the pace and scale of forest restoration activities. Bioenergy facilities can also create jobs and opportunities for community economic development.

These issues are being addressed at the statewide level. The 2012 California Bioenergy Action Plan included a broad array of action items related to the promotion of forest bioenergy. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) was identified as one of the key responsible agencies for these action items, particularly in areas regarding outreach and assistance to stakeholders and collaborative efforts related to the development of community-scale forest bioenergy facilities.

Since the Bioenergy Action Plan was published, legislation regarding forest biomass has been signed into law. In 2012, Senate Bill 1122 added new benchmarks for the development of small-scale forest biomass projects. It required the state’s electrical corporations to collectively purchase 50 megawatts of generating capacity from new small-scale (three megawatts or less) bioenergy projects using byproducts of sustainable forest management in fire threat treatment areas. In 2016 Senate Bill 859 added an additional requirement that investor-owned utilities and large public-owned utilities enter into five-year contracts for 125 megawatts of power from biomass facilities that generate electricity through the use of forest materials removed from specific high fire hazard zones. The SNC is collaborating with other Regional agencies to assist forest communities in the SNC Region in developing the capacity, expertise, and financing needed to complete and maintain these projects.

Download our Bioenergy Fact Sheet

SB 1122 adds new urgency to the SNC’s responsibilities under the Bioenergy Action Plan by adding an additional 50 MW of forest biomass in the next 10 years.


Elissa Brown

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