After the Rim Fire, Biomass could add Power to the Grid

After the Rim Fire, biomass could add power to the grid.  USFS photo/Keith Riggs Forest biomass is chipped and then delivered to a cogeneration facility. USFS photo/Keith Riggs Biomass chips being moved to a conveyor which will take the material to the power generation facility in background. USFS photo/Keith Riggs The result of biomass harvesting. USFS photo/Keith Riggs A biomass pile after the Rim Fire dwarfs the people in front of it. USFS photo/Keith Riggs Rim Fire biomass may total up to 1.2 million tons. USFS photo/Keith Riggs If the biomass has to be burned in place, smoke and atmospheric particulates will result. USFS photo/Keith Riggs

In the aftermath of California’s third largest wildfire, it’s possible that there could be a use for the blackened and burned remains of the forest: cogeneration of electrical power.

By some estimates, there may be enough woody biomass left after the Rim Fire to fill 60,000 truckloads. That material – charred tree limbs and trunks, brush and other debris – could total 1.2 million tons.

The Stanislaus National Forest is one of the leaders in the Forest Service in the repurposing of biomass. And the parent department of the agency, the Department of Agriculture, recently announced federal matching funding to help transport biomass out of national forest system lands and into power generation facilities.

This program, known as BCAP (Biomass Crop Assistance Program), might make it economically feasible for local cogeneration plants to haul the material out of the forest.

The alternative is to pile it for open burning  That would create smoke and would release even more carbon into the atmosphere. Researchers studying the mortality-related cost associated with wildfire smoke in 2003 in California was approximately $1 billion.    

If the biomass is allowed to remain on the forest, it will add to the fuel load and could burn again preventing the recovery of the forest before it’s had a chance to mature.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy writes, “During the past five years, over 4.5 million acres of California forests have been impacted by wildfire. Many predict that the size and severity of these fires, like the Rim Fire, will continue to increase unless investment is made in proactive forest restoration treatments. This sustainable forest management includes removing excess biomass, or small diameter trees, branches, and diseased wood, that act as fuel for a fire.”

“Biomass represents a huge untapped resource for the generation of heat and power and its removal can improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. In fact, burning biomass in a controlled facility to generate power, as opposed to an open fire, can reduce carbon dioxide emissions and create jobs for rural economies.” 

“California is making a new push to use forest fuels in biomass energy power plants, part of the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals,” writes Lauren Sommer, KQED Science reporter.

It is hoped that these factors, the forest’s know-how, the state’s push for renewable energy, and the federal government’s assistance in moving the fuel for that energy, can lead to a successful start on reforestation and recovery after the Rim Fire.

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