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Closure of more biomass plants reduces options

Issue Date: November 11, 2015
By Christine Souza
Farmers who have removed orchards have fewer ways to dispose of the wood waste, as biomass power plants continue to close.

The closure or threatened closure of more California biomass power plants leaves farmers with fewer options for disposing of tree prunings or of trees uprooted during planned orchard removals.

"The last few projects that we've done, we've had real issues with orchard removal," said Mike Powell, field manager for Blain Farming Co., which grows pecans and walnuts in Visalia. Following the recent closure of plants in Terra Bella, Mendota and Delano, he said, "we literally have nowhere to take this orchard waste."

The problem centers on 25- and 30-year contracts between biomass plants and utility companies, established in the 1980s, that are now expiring and not being renewed, forcing biomass plants to close.

"The contracts were set for the first 10 years at a very high, fixed price to get the facilities built, and then the price would fall off into a market price," said Julee Malinowski Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance. "No one ever anticipated that the market price would be as low as it is because of the price of natural gas."

Covanta Delano Power in Delano announced in late October that it would no longer accept biomass fuel, such as orchard removals, prunings and nut shells, as it prepares to process its existing inventory, which will carry the plant through the end of the year when its power contract runs out.

Dennis Serpa, Covanta Biomass Fuels manager, said Dec. 31 will be the final day the Delano plant can operate unless it can acquire a new power purchase agreement. The plant has an annual capacity of about 340,000 dry tons of biomass.

"We have five plants in California and four are shut down. Delano would be the fifth. We can't operate on the prices offered for open market power at this point," Serpa said. "With biomass, there's a lot more costs involved, and we can't compete with natural gas and solar is heavily subsidized. But we offer a lot more than what other energies can do: We eliminate a waste stream that doesn't really have another home."

Consultant Matt Barnes of Grid Subject Matter Experts said there are about 30 biomass plants in California, including about seven that remain idle but operational. Absent further action by the governor, state Legislature or the California Public Utilities Commission, Barnes said, "another three plants will likely close by Feb. 1, 2016, and another five plants could close by July 1, 2016, as power purchase agreements expire."

The supply of orchard waste sitting on farms greatly exceeds what can be processed at the remaining biomass plants, and this backlog has delayed farmers from moving forward with planting plans. Powell reported a shortage of orchard-removal contractors, meaning farmers are put on waiting lists due to the high demand for this service.

"It is going to be difficult for farmers," Serpa said, noting rising costs.

He said orchard removal for almonds typically costs $250 to $350 per acre, but said he is aware of one company that now charges between $1,000 and $1,200 an acre, without removing the wood, leaving that up to the farmer.

State air-quality regulations prevent or greatly restrict the open-air burning of orchard waste. Blain Farming Co. has attempted to find other uses for the waste, such as selling it to companies that make timber products and furniture, or to those that sell firewood.

With very few options left, Powell said, farmers are trying to learn more about the science behind what happens when wood is added to the soil, and what it means for orchard health.

Brent Holtz, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Joaquin County, has been researching the impacts of grinding orchard waste and incorporating organic matter into the soil.

"If growers realize that they can incorporate the organic matter from a previous orchard—and that it will be beneficial to their soil's health in the long term—then I believe they will choose this option," Holtz said, "especially if cogeneration companies are no longer taking biomass and growers are faced with paying for the grinding and transportation costs that they didn't have to pay for in the past."

Holtz estimated that when an orchard is pushed out, it yields about 100 tons per acre of organic matter that could be added back into the soil.

"If wood grindings can be shown to not take valuable nutrients from trees and not worsen replant disease or interfere with harvest, then growers would be more likely to adopt grinding and incorporating as an alternative," he said. "So far, we have not observed a negative response to whole-orchard recycling—but that doesn't mean it will always prove beneficial."

Holtz cited positive results seen by Jerrad Pierucci, who used a tub grinder to grind a 1,200-acre pomegranate orchard in Madera County.

Pierucci, who farms almonds with his family in Bakersfield, used manure spreaders to spread the pomegranate orchard grindings back into the soil, and said they spread "very nicely and evenly."

In researching where to take orchard waste, Pierucci said, he called cogeneration plants across the country and even sent inquiry emails to Europe, but those outlets were interested in a pellet or a certain type of material that is not produced in the Central Valley.

"I think (incorporating chips or grindings into the orchard) is going to become the only solution," Pierucci said. "We just put chips on some of our own ground; it's alkaline ground, so we are trying that approach to see if we can develop it."

Serpa, who farms 90 acres of almonds himself, said there are concerns with incorporating wood into the soil, such as disease issues that could occur if the wood is not processed properly.

"That wood is going to be close to the top of the soil for a long time and once the new crop starts to produce, you are going to start picking up wood. There's a lot of problems with that," he said.

To keep biomass plants operating, Assembly Member Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, introduced Assembly Bill 590, which would use available funding in the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for maintaining the current level of biomass power generation in California, and for revitalizing currently idle facilities. The bill passed out of the Assembly but was held up in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Biomass in California reduces open-field burning, reduces wood being put into landfills, helps reduce forest fires—there's so many benefits to biomass and on top of that, we produce power," Serpa said. "The greenhouse gas reduction funds seem to be a perfect fit for biomass plants."

Barnes added that in an emergency proclamation issued in October to address tree die-off due to the drought, Gov. Brown directed the CPUC to extend biomass power contracts to keep plants operating.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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