California leaders who attended the UN Climate Change Conference have been buzzing about new technologies that could bump the state once again into a leadership role for climate reductions.

The Golden State has invested substantially this year in addressing a separate air quality issue that is also presenting new opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In seeking out alternatives to open agricultural burning, converting agricultural waste into aviation fuels could bring a new leap in the race to decarbonize California.

“We need liquid fuels that are low- or zero-carbon,” said Daniel Sperling, a founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and a member of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), during a recent board hearing. “Some of that ag waste—I know it's expensive gathering it, and there's been issues on the economics—but I sure hope that we can keep that on the table as an option.”

Sperling has gained international renown for his research, congressional testimony and numerous books addressing issues surrounding the future of transportation. He urged the state to invest in facilities to convert the waste into liquid fuel for airlines, which would lead to less-than-zero emissions.

Daniel SperlingCARB board member Daniel Sperling

Davina Hurt, who serves on the CARB board and the board for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, agreed with Sperling, saying this option would “do double duty” by turning the waste into needed fuel.

“Innovation is the key, and R&D investment needs to happen and work in tandem,” said Hurt. “We need to be bold in trying alternatives.”

Hurt shared how the COP26 climate conference earlier this month exposed her to different products and processes, including alternatives for agricultural waste that prevent open burning as well as methane emissions from material decomposing in a landfill.

During the meeting, the board approved a new spending plan for $180 million that was allocated in the state budget for transitioning to alternative disposal methods for agricultural material. The budget funding coincides with CARB’s decision in March to phase out all agricultural burning in the San Joaquin Valley by 2025. CARB is also considering a program to monitor the practice throughout the state, which could inform a broader ban extending beyond the valley.

The new spending will bolster an existing program within the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District that offers incentives grants to farmers for new noncombustion equipment and practices to replace open burning. Since 2018 the program has addressed 1.3 million tons of agricultural material spanning 49,000 acres of farmland and continues to be oversubscribed. The district has received more than $40 million-worth of applications for the current funding cycle.

While the industry has welcomed the funding, the global supply chain crunch has added new barriers. It has led to an insufficient supply of equipment to meet the growing demand, according to CARB staff. Agricultural stakeholders have told the staff that smaller operations are bearing the brunt of the supply shortages and struggle to gain access to alternative services, since contractors tend to prioritize larger jobs.

To compensate, staff recommended the board allow for the limited application of combustion alternatives, such as air curtain burners. This would also address a lack of alternatives for certain crops, including grape vines imbedded with trellis wires. While vineyard managers have mostly abandoned the practice, older vines with wires are approaching the end of their productive lifespan and must be ripped out, explained John Eisenhut, the board’s agriculture member. Chipping the material to reincorporate into the soil would be like spreading millions of nails across a property, he said.

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The prospect of exempting some combustion practices troubled environmental justice groups. Shayda Azamian, a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, convinced the board to adopt new reporting requirements for those applying combustion alternatives. The growers must now document their efforts to find clean alternatives before determining that a curtain burner or other combustion tool is the only option.

Julia Levin, executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California, pointed out that the new funding excludes stationary sources as alternatives to burning, which targets bioenergy facilities.

“Bioenergy can convert ag waste into carbon-negative fuels to replace diesel in heavy-duty trucks and backup generators,” testified Levin. “We hope that in this next year's budget the exclusion of stationary sources will be dropped.”

The funding plan CARB approved includes spending on clean transportation incentives, which Levin argued shares the same objective of getting diesel off the road as quickly as possible. She urged the board to invest more in hydrogen fueling infrastructure, noting opportunities to produce hydrogen from dairy methane and other agricultural waste, along with cleared forest debris.

“We've got to start making those investments now, if we really want to move to zero-emission, heavy-duty trucks in the long-term,” she said.

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