CEC Biomass to Energy Study

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The Biomass to Energy project models the costs and benefits of generating electricity from forest thinnings over a 40‐year period beginning in 2006. The study demonstrates that economic valuation is possible for many, but not all, valued assets on the landscape, and that the impacts and costs of forest disturbance (including thinning operations) can be accurately modeled. The study includes a life cycle assessment of forest operations and energy conversion, measuring three biomass conversion technologies. A test of the model structure was developed on a Northern California forest landscape comprising approximately 2.7 million acres spanning the crest of the Sierra Nevada range and encompassing the Feather River basin. A Reference Case and Test Scenario were developed to test the structure and accuracy of the model using real‐life data from Mt. Lassen Power (an existing biomass conversion plant), public and private forestry operations, and historic wildfire ignition patterns. Wildlife habitat impacts and cumulative watershed effects were also modeled. Results of the Test Scenario show that thinning reduces wildfire size and severity — therefore reducing fire‐generated greenhouse gas emissions — while producing renewable energy. With appropriate caveats about data resolution and model sensitivity, impacts to wildlife habitat and watershed appeared minimal. The Biomass to Energy project benefits California by contributing to the state’s capacity to analyze forest biomass utilization opportunities at the landscape scale.

The Biomass to Energy (B2E) project breaks new ground by offering a framework for deciding whether biomass energy generation is a suitable investment for a given forest. This study offers a credible way to establish the relative values of converting forest thinnings into energy, as well as the costs (especially wildfires and air pollution) of not doing so. Such a framework updates the debate about structuring financial incentives that correspond to avoided costs.