Greener Firefighting is Under Californians’ Feet—Literally

There is perhaps no greater environmental threat facing California than the growing threat of wildfires, a challenge that the low-carbon fuels sector can help solve.
By Bryan Sherbacow | December 20, 2022

There is perhaps no greater environmental threat facing California than the growing threat of wildfires, a challenge that the low-carbon fuels sector can help solve. As lawmakers in the Golden State look for realistic solutions to ease these yearly destructive and alarmingly predictable patterns, it is important to remember that one key to more environmentally sound firefighting is, almost literally, right under our feet.

Across California’s millions of acres of wilderness there are woody residues—such as limbs and excess bark—lying on the ground or otherwise being placed there to thin harmful overgrowth that causes forest fires. In the past, there was a market for these residues, but demand has slowed dramatically due to a dwindling paper industry and rapid digitization. However, that slowdown in demand is over.

There is a new and thriving marketplace, driven by demand for renewable, nonfossil fuels, and a genuine industry commitment to help the state deal with this problem. These producers can transform the highest-risk residues into sustainable, low-carbon products and help fund the next phase of effective forest management. Increasing the urgency to tap this natural resource of residues across California’s wilderness is the fact that the airtankers burn up to 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of fossil fuel a day when engaged in combating a massive blaze.

So, how does it work? The process of converting biomass into renewable fuels consists of using heat (our company’s approach) or other methods to break down polymers in a plant’s skeleton to create a hydrocarbon-rich liquid that can be processed and refined into low-carbon or carbon-negative jet fuel, chemicals and other biobased products. By using abundant and sustainable sources of biomass with much lower carbon intensity than finite fossil sources, the resulting renewable fuels can power the economic model of forest management, fuel the fleet of airtankers, and help stem the tides of forest fires engulfing the state. We can take an unvirtuous circle and make it virtuous. 

 Nationally, California is ahead of the game by embracing its Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which requires transportation fuels to meet a specific greenhouse gas or carbon intensity (CI) target. It has a bold mandate: to reduce the CI of the transportation fuel pool in the state by 20% before 2030. Right now, the California Air Resources Board is considering setting even more aggressive CI targets, and while commendable, the language in the LCFS is ripe for improvement. 

My prior company converted a former petroleum refinery into the world’s first sustainable aviation fuel production facility in Paramount, California. My current company, Alder Fuels, has the technological expertise to harness and scale this extraordinary process, while contributing to the effort to stop destructive fires. Right now, however, the current requirements and definitions regarding renewable biomass in the LCFS inhibit our ability to help. For example, they do not recognize the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions savings from the use of forest residuals and have an arbitrary and burdensome threshold for residuals to qualify.

Recognizing the full emissions savings and expanding LCFS eligibility to cover more types of forest leftovers and land areas would help open the door for more renewable energy production and create a clear incentive for companies and landowners to more effectively contribute to forest management. With the potential to create a new economic model for forest management, advance the creation of renewable fuels, and decarbonize the Golden State, there has never been a more crucial time for legislators and regulators to reduce restrictions on utilizing these abundant supplies. California and federal lawmakers and regulators must back these critical technologies. In combination with the Biden administration’s inclusion of a tax credit for sustainable fuel in the recent Inflation Reduction Act, California’s renewable fuel industry could become the most advanced in the world.

The stakes could not be higher. The annual wildfire crisis is making California a less desirable—and more dangerous—place to live. Golden State policymakers must show leadership by building on the LCFS. We must make it easier to convert sustainable woody biomass residues to renewable fuels and incentivize the private-public partnerships that can play a vital role in both turning the tide of wildfire destruction and decarbonizing the state. The low-carbon fuels industry has the technology, the knowhow and dedication to help. Effective public policy should unleash it, not stand in its way.

Author: Bryan Sherbacow  
Founder and CEO, Alder Fuels
Chairperson of the Board, Low Carbon Fuels Coalition

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