Why Solar Power is Bad For The Klamath Region

Posted by admin on June 11, 2016

by Luna Latimer

Ok, that headline is a cheap trick to get you to read about a controversial topic.

But seriously, have you googled “California and Biomass” recently?

One of the top results is an LA Times article titled: “Solar is in, Biomass energy is out.” The article goes on to explain that “The state's biomass energy plants are folding in rapid succession, unable to compete with heavily subsidized solar farms.” Let’s be honest with ourselves: even if solar power wasn’t subsidized, it would still be cheaper than biomass energy. But not all energy is created equal. Here’s the case for biomass energy, as I see it.

Biomass is fuel that is developed from organic materials, and used to create electricity or other forms of power, and it can offer a renewable and sustainable source of energy. In our area, biomass is usually generated using a forestry byproduct –materials that would otherwise be burned on site.

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What will be the fate of this pile on National Forest lands? Will it be burned on site or used to create energy independence? 

I know a lot of people living in the mid Klamath are off the grid and use hydro and/or solar power and batteries to produce their own power. In no way am I claiming that this power production is bad for the Klamath. Here on the River, I see a lot of solar panels on roofs where the power is being sold to PG&E at a rate between $0.03 to $0.04 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). That is cheap power. It also helps fill the PG&E requirement for renewable energy. Why would PG&E buy expensive biomass when it can fill its renewable quota with cheap solar power? They probably won’t.

We face a fire and fuel problem in the Klamath Mountains. Over a century of fire suppression and laws stopping prescribed burning has created a tinderbox around our communities. It is just a matter of time before these overly dense forests go up in smoke. I have a hard time viewing these trees as having sequestered carbon, as the fire reality we face makes the carbon seem pretty active, or ready to be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas emissions.

As groups like the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC), Karuk Tribe, Forest Service and Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) work to increase the pace, scale and quality of collaborative restoration of our forests, a lot of the forest is slated to be burned. However, a portion of these forests – the part that is close to a road -- could be headed to a biomass power plant.

Biomass power is a superior renewable in that it has other benefits:

1)    It provides a 24/7 baseload power – it can be produced even if the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow

2)    It has a net carbon benefit because it not only is a renewable energy source, but it limits the emissions from pile burning in the forest.

3)    It creates more local jobs than other sources of power, according to the US Department of Energy.

I know what some of you are thinking: If we are cutting woody biomass out of the forest (and using fuel to do so), then transporting it to a biomass facility (and using fuel to do so), how can you say that biomass energy is carbon neutral? A lot of work has gone into assessing this and given our local situation, biomass energy achieves a net decrease in atmospheric Greenhouse gasses compared to the alternative of open burning of the materials.

I have to take this one step further. Is there any hope for biomass energy in the mid Klamath? I think this really comes down to this question: who pays the cost? Even if you can get behind biomass as a carbon-neutral source of renewable energy with added community and ecosystem services in theory, would you pay a higher rate for this type of energy on your utility bill?

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The brightest beacon of hope for biomass is the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) – the system in seven states, including California, which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors agreed two weeks ago to enter into the CCA program as part of Redwood Coast Energy Authority. The Board of Supervisors unanimously supports biomass energy being part of the CCA renewable energy portfolio. The CCA would still offer a lower rate than PG&E – which is critical so that customers don’t choose to opt out of the CCA – while adding biomass to the mix.

Here’s hoping that the Redwood Coast Energy Authority can take advantage of being in the Saudi Arabia of biomass.

Luna has worked with MKWC since 2003 when she was doing graduate research with the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council. She is a fifth-generation forest worker from Southern Oregon. She lives in Orleans, CA and works for MKWC as one of two Directors. Luna oversees administration and operations for MKWC. She received a Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology from Oregon State University with a focus on forest restoration projects on private land within the middle Klamath. Luna works with private landowners, agencies, contractors and non-profit organizations to restore both upslope and in-stream ecosystems. Luna is passionate about non-timber forest products and spends her free time harvesting and processing acorns, huckleberries, mushrooms, and other food and medicines.

What do you think?

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