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Placeholder Imagephoto credit: courtesy United States Bureau of Land Management
From wood to ag waste, including corn plants after harvest can be
source material for biomass energy.

Billed as a way to reduce fire risk and create cleaner energy, biomass energy is being grouped along with solar, wind and small hydro power as an electricity source with fewer trade offs.

But, not everyone sees it that way.

Maya Khosla is a biologist and writer affiliated with the Sonoma County Climate Activist Network...also called SoCo-Can. She said that may be the theory about biomass, but in practice, things aren't as clear. 

"It's pretty easy to see why it's called renewable, the industry says that anything that's cut and it's going to grow back, is renewable, because it's going to sequester the same amount of carbon. Except that if you cut a 200-year-old tree, you can't grow a 200-year old tree on the spot, you start with a seedling. So, there's a 200 year lag time involved that nobody's accounting for. We don't have 200 years to solve the climate crisis," Khlosa said. 

The thing is, mature trees are much more valuable as lumber than as biomass.

Dr. Zia Abdullah is a laboratory program manager for bio-energy technologies at the US Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. He is developing methods to make jet fuel out of biomass, from all kinds of material, including farming waste.

Abdullah said damaged and fallen trees also present opportunities.

"We feel that this is a great opportunity to make fuels from woody-biomass material that can cause potential for fires in the future. If that material is left and a fire happens--even if that fire is away from where people live, that wood is going to burn, and it's going to make carbon dioxide which is going to get back into the atmosphere," Abdullah said. 

Burning biomass derived fuel instead of ordinary jet fuel, at least replaces the jet fuel, he added.

For Khosla there's also a local factor weighing on any green claims---the Diesel fuel used to get local slag to a biomass plant.

"Sonoma Clean Power is calling it renewable energy, but it's not, because it's coming out of burning trees and generating a massive carbon footprint because those trees are trucked, for example from Sonoma County going all the way to Scotia or all the way to Chinese Camp which is west of Yosemite," Khosla said.

She faults state officials and the lobbyists who convinced them to classify biomass as renewable.

Biomass isn't always a win-win. There are cases, Abdullah agreed, where biomass is a failure.

"Let us say that you've got biomass and you are moving it long distances in trucks and those trucks are burning Diesel, so, you know you are defeating the purpose of this, right? You're putting a lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the whole point was to make fuel that would be low carbon fuel," he said.

Members of the Sonoma County Climate Activist Network say they are trying to get the word out about opposition to a forest products pellet plant in Mendocino. 

And they say fuel pellet plants are also being planned in Lassen and Tuolomne counties, which, according to So-Co-Can!, source wood from Northern California forests and sell the pellets to be burned for energy in Asia.

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