Reigniting Biogas in California

Creating energy from scrap and waste is not a new concept. Scrap wood, landfill gas, farm waste, and other “biomass” have all been used in the past to create electricity in California. For a number of reasons, such “bioenergy” projects have not yet become a mainstay of California’s energy portfolio. However, with technological advances and laws aimed at curbing climate change, bioenergy promises to become a prominent feature in California’s energy market.

“Digesters” have become a particularly promising form of bioenergy. Such facilities capture or digest “biogas,” such as methane, from animal manure and waste, and then use that captured gas to create electricity. Like other forms of bioenergy, such as scrap wood burning plants, digester projects are not new. In the past, digester technology was fairly crude and the production resulted in high levels of air emissions such as nitrogen oxide (NOx). However, a variety of new technologies — many of which are already employed successfully around the globe — have emerged to make the capture and use of waste materials more efficient with fewer air emissions.

Such biogas projects help reduce greenhouse gases by capturing methane that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere. Moreover, the animal waste, a renewable energy source, is an alternative to fossil fuels. And, with the new technology, electricity can be created that complies with air pollution laws and reduces the level of emissions that would have resulted from decomposition of the animal waste.

In short:

  • We have the tools to reduce emissions and create electricity through biogas digester technology.
  • And we certainly have the agriculture to support a proliferation of digester projects.

But do we have the law and policy get these projects off the ground?

The answer is decidedly “yes.”

For example, we have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the State of California to obtain 33 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, and a goal to obtain 12,000 megawatts (MW) of our electricity supply from distributed energy. Further, digester projects that result in emissions reductions can generate “carbon offsets” to be sold on the market for use by companies in meeting their compliance obligations under the cap-and-trade program.

Other policies have been enacted to specially advance bioenergy projects. For example, in 2006 then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued Executive Order S-06-06 to start the bureaucratic wheels in motion to advance bioenergy by, among other things, setting a goal to obtain 20 percent of renewable electricity in California from biomass resources, creating an interagency bioenergy working group, and requiring a number of California agencies to initiate proceedings to encourage expanded supply of bioenergy. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown furthered his predecessor’s goal with a Bioenergy Action Plan that sets forth action items to expand research and development of bioenergy facilities, reduce permitting and regulatory challenges, and address economic barriers to bioenergy development. In 2012, California also passed SB 1122, which requires utilities to obtain 250 MW from bioenergy sources three MW and smaller.

State agencies and localities have also started taking action to promote and streamline bioenergy by, for example, developing programmatic environmental impact reports (EIRs) and making public funds available for projects. Several utilities have also advanced bioenergy by setting up programs to help with permitting and funding, and developing standard contracts for power purchase from bioenergy projects.

In sum, we have the policies in place in California to create the perfect storm for a surge in biogas digesters.

There’s just one sticking point: It’s been a while since a biogas digester project was successfully developed — from soup to nuts — in California. And with laws such as the California Environmental Qualiy Act (CEQA) and agencies such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the biogas industry is understandably worried about successfully cutting all of the red tape necessary to start operating here in California. For example, as reported by a recent Los Angeles Times article, after a number of digester projects failed in decades past, it’s been difficult to regain dairy’s confidence.

In the end, all of the components necessary to create a renaissance of biogas digester projects are present here in California. All we need now is for the regulators to give the final signals to farmers, investors, clean-tech companies, and other stakeholders so that California is seen as a low-risk market and the second wave of digesters can take hold to help California meet its laudable environmental goals.