Kern’s ambitious list of carbon burial proposals has lengthened with the addition of an early-stage, relatively inexpensive plan for reusing an idle biomass plant near Delano to combust local ag waste then burying the byproduct gas while generating small amounts of electricity or hydrogen. A company based in Rancho Cordova that uses rocket technology to increase burn efficiency has initiated preliminary talks with Kern County government as it pursues a similar biomass plant-reuse project in Mendota under a new partnership with Microsoft and oil industry giants Chevron and Schlumberger.
The projects are not without skeptics who question claims the process is carbon negative and doubt the technology itself. Environmental groups have been critical of carbon capture and sequestration generally; they’re no more receptive to burning biomass and burying its byproduct carbon dioxide. If Clean Energy Systems’ project in Mendota lives up to its billing as a safe, financially viable, zero-emission solution for handling the Central Valley’s massive production of ag waste, the company’s proposal in northern Kern could join at least three other projects in the county that, though unrelated to biomass, all aim to address climate change by injecting CO2 deep underground.
CES has purchased the former 50-megawatt, 1,200-ton-per-day Covanta Delano LLP biomass plant that was shut down in 2015. That was after a large share of the state’s biomass power plants shut down several years ago in the face of competition from against other renewable energy producers. The loss of facilities that had taken in ag waste resulted in a glut of feedstock, leading many farmers to burn their woody waste openly. Regulations on such pollution have since tightened while mulching of shredded orchards and vineyards has become more common. Even so, some growers are finding customers for their biomass.
After CES initiated a conversation with officials in Kern, the county did a preliminary assessment that led it to inform the company in early 2020 it would have to perform a full environmental review and pay certain fees. Things have stopped there. “We are not actively processing any permit for any Clean Energy Systems project anywhere in unincorporated Kern County,” the county’s top energy-permitting official, Lorelei Oviatt, said by email. Environmental advocates who would prefer the project remain on hold have raised a number of concerns not unique to the CES proposal near Delano.