Biomass Energy in California

Biomass consists of organic residues from plants and animals which are obtained primarily from harvesting and processing of agricultural and forestry crops. Biomass are wastes and by-products that could be utilized as fuels for producing energy, instead of becoming landfill waste. Examples of some of the biomass residues that are utilized in direct combustion power plants are: forest slash, urban wood waste, lumber waste, agricultural wastes, etc. At the peak of the biomass industry, California's biomass power plants installed capacity totalled 800 megawatts (MW) of electricity from 66 direct combustion biomass facilities.

An example of a biomass facility is this one shown below at the right. The Wheelabrator Shasta power plant is one of the most modern independent wood-fired power plants. The 49 MW (net) plant processes 750,000 tons of mill waste and forest residues from Shasta County and surrounding areas. Unusable waste wood from surrounding public and private land are selectively removed and processed in the plant to improve remaining standing timber.

Wheelabrator Biomass Plant, photo courtesy of Wheelabrator

Biomass Resources

The term biomass refers to structural and non-structural carbohydrates and other compounds produced through photosynthesis consisting of plant materials and agricultural, industrial, and municipal wastes and residues. The components of biomass include cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin, lipids, proteins, simple sugars, starches, water, hydrocarbons, ash and other compounds. The total estimated biomass resource potential of California is approximately 47 million bone dry tons.

History and Current Status

The California Energy Commissions' earliest involvement with California's biomass power generation was through the creation of the Biomass Development Program, created by Senate Bill 771. One of the goals of the Biomass Development Program was to accelerate the development of sustainable emerging biomass energy technologies in California by addressing the critical but solvable technical issues and provide long term support, funding, or seed money in order to achieve prompt commercial readiness and maximize benefits to the state.

From about 1990 to 1993, California's biomass power generation was at its highest (more than 800 MW of installed capacity). In 1996, the energy production from biomass dwindled to about 590 MW. The expiration of price support to the biomass industry from the government is the main reason for the reduction in biomass power generation in California. Currently, there are about 30 direct-combustion biomass facility in operation witha capacity of 640 MW. This is less than half of the facilities in operation (66) during the industries' peak.

Programs such as the Senate Bill 771 Program and the Energy Technology Advancement Program (ETAP) in the past, and currently, the Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) Program and the state's renewable energy programs have and will provide funding for development and research involving biomass power generation.

For more information please contact:

Prab Sethi
Energy Research and Development Division
California Energy Commission
Phone: 916-327-1302
E-mail: PSethi@energy.ca.gov

Members of the news media,
please contact the Media and Public Communications Office at 916-654-4989.