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Monday, March 14, 2016

The Future of Biomass

Tree and orchard removal seem to have been on the rise over the last couple years. With the lack of water, farmers are having to remove orchards that they can't irrigate. Farmers are down sizing their planted acreage and prioritizing what water they do have. Many farmers are removing older, less productive orchards sooner than they would normally. In it's place, sometimes the land is being fallowed and times they plant a new orchard which requires less water. All of this means more and more trees are being torn out and orchards are being removed. But what do farmers do with these trees once they are removed from the ground?

Piles and piles of dead trees are all over the Central Valley
Until recently, a common use was co-generation. Farmers would pay for their trees to be removed and hauled to co-generation plants. These facilities would burn removed trees and make energy to be transferred into the grid. In the 1980's biomass plants and the utility companies created 20-30 year contracts for these facilities to be built and to use agriculture by-products to create energy. Well, now these contracts are expiring and the utility companies are not renewing these contracts. It is now cheaper for the utility companies to use natural gas and solar than to use tree biomass.

The problem is now that these biomass facilities were utilizing a large majority of the trees being removed in California. Of the 30 biomass plants throughout the state most of them will be closing by July 2016, the majority of which closed January 2016. There are currently no public facilities excepting material in the Central Valley.  All the facilities have reached their maximum capacity of material they need until their contracts expire.
Mounds of wood chips waiting to be hauled away
The question is now what do farmers do with their trees? Because of Valley Air Control Board standards and requirements, farmers can only burn certain material on certain days. Burning a whole orchard would take much more time than allocated. And what a waste of an energy resource. The biomass facilities would burn our trees and create energy and now farmers are going to have to burn the trees anyways without the great energy source being utilized.

There have been some studies done by the University Extension that say farmers can return those trees back into the soil. But grinding a whole orchard and ripping it into the soil has not been studied long enough to know if it would be beneficial for the life of the new orchard. Plus the economic impact of such a venture would be quite costly. Some growers are investing into new and innovative ways though. There was recently an Iron Wolf Demo where growers, media and researchers came out to see just how to think outside the box. The massive Iron Wolf machine will grind 4 acres in a day and return the tree into the soil in chunks that can be ripped into the new field. This machine comes with a hefty $1 million price tag, making it only affordable for a small percentage of growers.

So what are farmers to do now? Well there is an initiative on the Governor's desk to use Cap and Trade funds to keep the co-generation facilities open. He has been sitting on it for quite some time, making some farmers skeptical if he will allocate the funds. We can also hope that the utility companies will renew their contracts and keep these facilities open. Farmers, like always, will have to be innovative and creative in coming up with new ideas and uses for their products.

Until Next Time,
Almond Girl

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