November 29, 2018
“Healthy forests matter, not just to those living in and around the forests, but to all Californians who rely on clean water, clean air, recreational opportunities and rural jobs. The impacts of forest wildfires on our water, energy, environment, and economy are felt by Californians throughout the state.”
California’s forests are in crisis. The escalating wildfires that threaten both rural and urban areas are perhaps the most visible indicator. Beyond individual lives and property, vital assets for all Californians are at stake: water supplies, clean air, climate-change buffers, resources, wildlife habitat and cherished recreational areas.
Overgrown forest conditions and severe drought have led to the most destructive fire that California has ever experienced in Butte, Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, and to the largest fire that the state has endured in modern history in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Losses to life, property and public resources were immense.
These catastrophic wildfires are a symptom of the growing crisis in our forests. Many forces are at work, including decades of inadequate forest management and overgrowth, a five-year drought amid a changing climate, and insect infestation. Together, these factors have created an epidemic of dead and dying trees.
Without bold action, California wildfires are destined to become more frequent and widespread. While rural communities, already struggling, will continue to bear the brunt of the destruction, urban and suburban areas also are threatened.
California’s forests are at risk of burning beyond return, and this impact will be felt throughout the entire state. Decades of built-up overgrowth and debris must be removed. Conventional approaches to deal with the materials, such as open-pile burning and landfill disposal, are no longer options for environmental, public-health and safety reasons.
New strategies must be pursued to assertively develop economically viable commercial uses for forest materials, including smaller diameter trees and woody waste debris known as “biomass,” which significantly contribute to megafires. Product pipelines must be developed for housing and construction materials, bioplastics, energy generation and biofuels.
In response to these challenges, economic leaders, the wood products industry, rural communities, academic experts, researchers, and local, state and federal officials have been working together to develop new technologies and markets for high-value products using low- to no-value biomass.
The upsides would resonate not just in rural regions, but throughout the state.
California’s forested lands play a critical role in California’s overall environmental and economic well-being. The vast majority all of the water used by urban California and its agricultural lands comes from watersheds found in rural forested lands, according to the Association of California Water Agencies. Keeping these watersheds healthy is key for the state’s agricultural operations, for cities and towns, and for businesses and commercial enterprises throughout the state.
The growing scale and intensity of wildfires has led to scientists to caution, in the California EPA’s 2018 “Indicators of Climate Change in California” report that “some forest lands are releasing carbon faster than they are able to store it.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office has also recently found that preserving and potentially increasing the role that forests play in sequestering carbon and constraining greenhouse gas emissions are becoming important components in the state’s efforts to slow the effects of climate change.
Forest Restoration Benefits
Forest restoration, which includes both mechanical thinning of trees and forest materials and removal of biomass, as well as fire to restore a forest’s ability to store snow and use water more efficiently, is an important component in maintaining water supply reliability.
A 2015 study by the Nature Conservancy and Ecosystem Economics San Francisco found that if the current scale of forest restoration were increased three-fold, it is possible that it could result in up to a 10% increase in the mean annual streamflow for individual watersheds. Research further showed that the “economic benefits from increased hydropower generation and water uses are sufficient to cover between one-third and the full cost of thinning, assuming a low or high water response to forest thinning.”
Similarly, another study reported by the National Science Foundation in 2018 found that restoring forests through mechanical thinning or use of managed fire can save billions of gallons of water each year by reducing water loss from evapotranspiration. The study suggests that understanding how much water could be made available can create a “financing mechanism” to fund the costly work of thinning trees and staging controlled burns.
In the face of the growing risks in California, state leaders and policy experts have recognized that more resources must be devoted to forest health and preparing for more inevitable wildfire disasters.
The urgency and gravity of this situation cannot be overstated. California cannot wait any longer to take decisive action to preserve our forests and watersheds. The very lifeblood of the state is at risk.
Making Greater Use of Forest Materials Efforts to Date
Biomass Power Generation
Since the 1980s, California’s timber and energy sectors innovatively created electricity from the reuse of renewable organic used wood, wood byproducts, and wood residues preventing the materials from being dumped into landfills, burned in open piles, or left on forest floors. Biomass power plants convert wood residues to produce renewable electricity. They provide opportunities for job creation and economic development in rural communities. Yet, California’s biomass power plants continue to close their doors.
Biomass electricity production began in California during the 1980s in response to federal mandates for alternative-energy sources. At that time, more than 60 biomass plants were converting woody waste to generate about 2% of the state’s electricity, according to a Little Hoover Commission report.
Since then, legislative initiatives have encouraged the use of trees and woody material as an energy source, but the industry faces significant economic and technical challenges.
Hauling the heavy wood materials from remote locations is costly, as are upgrades for aging plants. Wind and solar energy represent cheaper renewable power sources and thus are favored by energy providers seeking to diversify portfolios. As a result, today, the California Biomass Energy Alliance reports that California has just 22 biomass energy plants that accept woody feedstocks.
At its peak, the biomass energy industry produced more than 15% of California’s renewable electricity supply. Today, that amount is about 6%, according to the California Biomass Energy Alliance. Despite the decline, the industry and local communities have continued to work at expanding production. Among the efforts:
- The Sierra Institute’s Rural Community Development Initiative involves nine rural communities working to create markets in bio-energy production and other types of uses for lower value woods. The Institute also is working to develop the multi-phase Plumas Biomass Project involving a network of biomass boilers at institutions with high heat demand, with an affiliated chip processing facility anchored on a wood utilization campus in Crescent Mills. Potential business activities include processed wood chips for biomass boiler use, mass timber production, packaged and dried firewood, soil amendments and small-scale bioenergy production. The campus hopes to bring benefits including jobs to communities within Plumas County and increased scale of forest restoration in the county and the Upper Feather River Watershed.
- The Loyalton Biomass Cogeneration Plant was acquired and refurbished by American Renewable Power. Located near the City of Loyalton (Sierra County), the plant will use biomass fiber sourced from nine counties within an hour’s drive of the plant and power will be supplied to a consortium of municipal utilities located throughout California. The Sierra Business Council is working on the Northern Sierra Biomass Initiative, which envisions replicating the Loyalton plant transformation in several Northern California counties.
State government has also been active. In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 859, which requires investor-owned utilities and large publicly owned utilities to enter into five-year contracts for power from biomass facilities that generate electricity from forest materials removed from specific high fire hazard zones. Given the higher costs of biomass energy production, there are concerns that such energy in the utilities’ portfolios will decline once the required contracts expire.
Biomass utilization will help reduce fire-inducing conditions. However, because of the current low financial value for energy production, the California Forest Carbon Plan says “it is likely to be only a marginal driver of harvesting activities, absent some kind of subsidization.”
This stands as a difficult issue for policymakers and utilities. In its recent report, the Little Hoover Commission stated that California needs to design a new “biomass energy policy” that looks more deeply at the unresolved issues and navigates the difficult “least cost and best fit” decisions. Going forward, this will be a challenge.
The New Frontier: Mass Timber Products and Markets
Forest-restoration processes and sustainable management is costly and potentially could be supported through the sale of biomass and wood products.
Senate Bill 859 required the California Natural Resources Agency to create a Wood Products Working Group to help expand markets for engineered wood products to make use of woody biomass. In October 2017, the SB 859 Wood Products Working Group issued a report with its recommendations for to advance a market for increased forest management and wood products such as such as cross-laminated timber (a type of “mass timber” product) which consists of massive, structural timber panels made up of cross layers of wooden boards. This type of engineered timber is used in building construction and is engineered to be structurally sound and lighter than concrete and steel. It holds promise, in particular, for helping to alleviate California’s housing shortage, which will reach 3.5 million homes by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute’s 2016 “Toolkit to Close California’s Housing Gap” report.
Despite having massive forests and being the largest user of engineered wood west of the Mississippi, California imports nearly all of the engineered wood that it uses from out of state. Therefore, a market clearly exists. The Wood Products Working Group explained the benefits of accelerating use of mass timber products in California, noting their rapid development and productive use in other places: “Mass timber is a growing category of wood products that has the potential to grow significantly in California and advance the State’s climate change and green buildings objectives. Mass timber is more commonly used for construction in Europe and saw a dramatic increase in use as a structural element in the past decade; Canada and Oregon have recently pushed to mainstream its use in North America. As a construction material, mass timber is favored by designers for its strength, affordability, aesthetics, construction efficiency, structural performance, small carbon footprint, and ability to achieve substitute for or work alongside concrete, steel or masonry as a structural element.”Among the report’s recommendations:
- Remove barriers to markets: redevelop former sawmill and rural industrial sites, permit both new manufacturing operations and the use of new wood materials, and assist with financing issues, including gap financing to incentivize broader investment.
- Promote innovation: focus on applied research and development, product testing for mass timber construction and other materials, market promotion, and strengthen partnerships between the industry, rural economic development organizations, and colleges and universities.
- Invest in human capital: assure that the necessary workforce is available and trained to staff new wood-products operations.
California also is seeing private-sector engagement in the mass timber market. Katera Co., in Menlo Park, for example, has established a partnership with the Washington State University Composite Materials and Engineering Center to develop and test product lines for cross-laminated timber. In 2017, the company announced plans to open a factory in Spokane Valley, WA, to mass produce timber products including cross-laminated timber.
Together, these developments are pushing California forward on the road to making profitable use of the excess timber in California’s forests and bringing greater public safety, forest and watershed resiliency, and new jobs and economic development to rural communities. But more must be done as quickly as possible.