Until about a year ago, nearly 2 million pounds a day of agricultural waste and urban tree trimmings would go up in smoke or get trucked to a landfill, and nobody really benefited from it.
Not anymore. Now it fuels a power plant north of Bakersfield that generates enough electricity to power 30,000 homes -- and it helps produce steam that doubles production in nearby oil fields.
On Thursday, Kern County dignitaries, including state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, gathered for a tour of the plant in celebration of the inaugural National Bioenergy Day. They were impressed.
"Very few subjects really excite me like cogeneration and biomass," county Supervisor Leticia Perez said. "This really is the future." (Cogeneration is the dual process of creating electricity and steam for oil production at the same time.)
The 38-employee plant, Mt. Poso Cogeneration Co. LLC, underwent a roughly $50 million, 15-month conversion from being coal-fired to running only on wood pulp from Central Valley farms and urban sources as far away as Los Angeles.
Air regulators say biomass plants emit roughly the same total amount of pollution as coal. But they say plants that run on wood pulp are much more beneficial because they spew less sulphur oxide and certain other pollutants, and the carbon they release into the air is captured in plant growth
Biomass plants also help California meet its renewable energy goals. Mt. Poso has a 15-year contract with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which like other investor-owned utilities is under regulatory orders to secure a third of power from renewable sources by 2020.
Despite their emissions, biomass plants are considered better than wind turbines and solar plants in one way: They can provide juice to the grid 24 hours a day.
The tricky part is finding enough feedstock. Covanta Delano, a larger biomass plant in Delano that does not produce steam for oil production, competes with Mt. Poso for sources of wood pulp.
"You can't just open the gate up and hope (truckloads of biomass) come," said David Mittelstadt, who as Mt. Poso's manager of resource recovery has to make sure feedstock deliveries arrive consistently year-round.
This year, Mt. Poso signed an exclusive contract with Kern County to take all its tree trimmings. It also accepts biomass from Tulare County and other sources.
In another innovative recycling twist, the water Mt. Poso uses for steam and other purposes comes from nearby oil fields, noted Don Macpherson, president and CEO of Macpherson Oil, California's eighth largest oil producer. The Santa Monica-based company is a 50-50 partner on the plant with Ann Arbor, Mich.-based DTE Energy Services.
"We're quite proud of this plant," Macpherson said.
The plant was built 25 years ago near Famoso Road. About 39 percent of the recent conversion from coal-firing was paid for by the New Markets Tax Credit program, established in 2000 to encourage equity investment in poor communities.