Rich Gordon, Special to CalMatters

California has embarked on an aggressive, unprecedented forest management effort to protect communities, assure public safety, and restore forest resiliency.

Our new normal demands the thinning of our forests by removing shrubs, brush, and small trees.  As we do this work, there is one question that lingers: what are we to do with the forest waste, also known as forest slash, we are generating?

This material has little to no commercial value and we do not want to burden our rapidly filling landfills with this waste.  So, what are the alternatives?

One option is to do nothing.

The material, over the course of several years, will decompose and there certainly is a benefit to that. It’s reintroduction into the forest floor can enhance forest health by battling erosion, thus supporting biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

However, when we leave this material on the forest floor, it releases methane as it decomposes and that is problematic given our goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly this material remains susceptible to fire. We cannot afford to leave more fuel, in the form of woody debris, in our forests.

Another option for managing forest slash and dead woody debris is open pile burning, which is the carefully planned burning of these materials.

Open pile burning reduces fuel loads, but it is bad for air quality. The widespread use of open pile burning across California’s roughly 33 million acres of forestland could undermine our climate change goals. While open pile burning certainly produces fewer harmful pollutants than wildfires, it still is detrimental to the environment.

Doing nothing is not an option, open pile burning is not an ideal option, so where does that leave us? Enter bioenergy.

Bioenergy is the method through which forest waste and dead woody debris is used to generate renewable electricity. Sounds like a win/win solution: convert forest thinning waste into electricity.

But bioenergy has strong detractors. Some people in the environmental community note that it is not a pollution free solution.

However, the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association supports bioenergy as the cleanest option for the use of forest waste. This conclusion is based on studies that show a reduction of 99% of fine particulate matter released from bioenergy facilities as compared to open pile burning.

Utility rate advocates note that the electricity generated from bioenergy is more expensive than other renewable sources and natural gas. But the pennies paid for bioenergy pale in comparison to the cost of wildfires in California.

There is a way to make bioenergy less expensive.

There are 23 bioenergy facilities in California. Operators can use woody debris as fuel if it meets certain criteria.  A recent report by the California Public Utilities Commission and prepared for the High Hazard Fuels Study Committee by independent consultants noted that transporting the fuel long distances plus competition for qualifying fuel is driving up the cost.

There is a way to reduce the cost of bioenergy by altering the definition of qualifying fuel.

The Legislature has an opportunity to do just that.  Sen. Anna Caballero, a Salinas Democrat, is carrying Senate Bill 515 to expand the definition of qualifying fuel. Although it has stalled, legislators should revisit this measure when they return in January.

Currently, qualifying fuel is narrowly defined based on the original response to tree mortality in the Sierra Nevadas. Expanding the qualifying fuel definition to include waste material from communities most at risk from wildfire would help California meet its fire prevention goals and positively impact the bioenergy market.

And this expansion would have absolutely no impact on current utility costs or ratepayers.

Another benefit of expanding the definition of qualifying fuel is that it would allow additional bioenergy facilities to have extended contracts.

This would provide assurance over a longer period of time to those operating bioenergy facilities and could help expand the market. That would have a positive economic impact in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goals to uplift rural economies.

California will not complete its forest management and fire prevention work in the next year or two, so longer horizons for utilization of forest waste only make sense.

California’s biomass market is ripe for expansion and offers an environmentally responsible way to reduce forest fuel loads, fight climate change, and produce renewable energy. Without leadership from the Capitol, however, a crucial opportunity will be lost.

Rich Gordon is the president and chief executive officer of the California Forestry Association, richg@calforests.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.