Biomass decision may save forest restoration efforts

The Arizona Corporation Commission this week agreed to require the state’s utilities to buy or produce 90 megawatts of energy annually from biomass — saving the forest restoration industry from collapse.

The Corporation Commission on a 4-1 vote ordered the reluctant staff to come up with a proposed set of rules to create a market for the 1.5 million tons of branches, brush and debris created by thinning 50,000 acres of overgrown forest annually.

“We were in a desperate situation,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, a leading member of the stakeholders group for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). “This is critical.”

The ACC staff had drafted a report questioning the value of extending even the current mandates to buy 28 megawatts of power, much less expanding the requirement to 90 megawatts.

But Commissioner Andy Tobin led the push for the full 90 megawatt requirement, which would create the market needed to jump-start the moribund 4FRI effort. It could also boost the average homeowner’s electric bill by $1 to $4 a month, based on an earlier, still debated study by Arizona Public Service (APS).

“This is huge, absolutely huge,” said Martin of the provisional commission support for expanding the market for biomass. “It turns the biomass into a product instead of a problem. If we can’t figure out how to let the industry deal with these attendant issues, we’re not ever going to get this forest cleaned out — period.”

Novo Power President Brad Worsley said only a Corporation Commission mandate and long-term contracts from the Forest Service will make it possible to create the biomass power generation plants needed to sustain forest restoration. Novo Power operates a 28 megawatt biomass power plant in Snowflake, the only one in Arizona. APS currently has a four-year contract to buy power from the plant, which has sustained the forest restoration efforts in the White Mountains.

“I’m grateful for what happened Monday,” said Worsley. “But I’m not breathing a lot easier yet. It’s not done until it’s done — and it’s not done yet.”

The commission must still adopt a final rule, with many key details still unresolved.

Forest restoration advocates showed up in force this week at a commission hearing, prompting the commissioners to essentially overrule a staff report. The staff had concluded the commission should focus on keeping electric rates as low as possible instead of shifting the cost of forest restoration onto electricity users.

However, forest advocates pointed out that creating a market for millions of tons of biomass would benefit the entire state. Large-scale thinning would likely increase runoff from millions of acres of watershed into the Valley, in a state with a worsening water shortage. Saving the forest restoration efforts would also potentially save billions in wildfire suppression costs and billions in property damage. It will also save lives by reducing deaths from air pollution from wildfires, save the lives of firefighters and homeowners from megafires. All the while, the biomass industry will provide jobs in hard-pressed rural industries.

“Commissioner Tobin pointed out that rarely is a political movement pure in its intention and perfect in its answers — but there are very few things we work on at a state or national level more important,” said Worsley.

Martin said APS and other power companies also supported the plan, along with a host of environmental groups, officials from rural counties, logging companies and advocates for economic development.

“We now have an opportunity to see if the market can solve this problem — we didn’t have that before,” said Martin.

The Forest Service has struggled for a decade to find a contractor who could thin the millions of acres of overgrown forests, which have contributed to a massive increase in wildfires. The Paradise fire in California that killed 85 people, consumed 15,000 homes and inflicted $9 billion in damages demonstrating the potential for disaster in a drought-plagued, overgrown forest.

The Forest Service has pioneered how to complete massive environmental analysis, getting hundreds of thousand of acres approved for clearing in a single study. However, one contractor after another has failed to come anywhere near the 50,000-acres-per-year pace envisioned a decade ago. Even at that pace, it would take perhaps 40 years to work through the 2 million acres in need of thinning. Tree densities have increased from maybe 50 per acre to perhaps 800 per acres over much of that area, due to fire suppression, grazing and clear-cut logging.

Given the new streamlined Forest Service system, economics now represents the biggest challenge to 4FRI, the biggest forest restoration effort in the nation’s history. The region now has only a handful of mills that could handle trees in the 12- to 16-inch diameter range. But the much greater challenge lies in getting rid of the thickets of 6- to 8-inch trees, branches from the larger trees and brush.

Every acre thinned produces roughly 50 tons of material — equally divided between logs for the mills and biomass. Contractors’ promises to turn the biomass into jet fuel, compost, soil char or other exotic products have all fallen short — leaving only biomass burning as a market.

Martin said the power companies, loggers, environmentalists, local officials and fire officials made common cause before the commission this week.

“They had a chance to be statesmen, to display the leadership needed to get this over the finish line — to really get a grip on these vulnerable forests.”

She noted that the commission will meet again to adopt a final rule in the next one to three months.

Worsley said only the adoption of such a rule combined with a Forest Service contract guaranteeing a supply of biomass for the next 15 to 20 years will make this possible for companies like his to get the financing needed to build additional biomass power plants.

His company has estimated it would build a 50 megawatt power plant in about 20 months for roughly $100 million.

The APS study estimated a 30 megawatt biomass power plant could cost as much as $500 million.

Still, forest advocates this week celebrated a crucial victory.

Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting said, “It would appear the commission now understands how much this matters to Arizona and its citizens. A month ago, this was on its deathbed — but through numerous prayers and efforts from concerned citizens, leaders and elected officials we are now moving in the right direction.”

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Biomass plants would protect Rim Country, White Mountains

The Arizona Corporation Commission’s effort to create a market for forest thinning biomass could save both White Mountains and Rim Country communities from the kind of catastrophe that has razed whole towns in California.

Moreover, the decision could lead to a big expansion of the struggling forest products industry in the White Mountains.

The Arizona Corporation Commission by February plans to adopt a new rule requiring the state’s utilities to produce 90 kilowatts of power annually from burning small trees, branches, brush and other biomass.

The mandate would provide a market for enough biomass to clear 50,000 acres of overgrown forests annually.

The mandate should also spur the construction of two or three new power plants — each employing perhaps 150 people and providing spinoff economic benefits.

Payson would seem a natural location for such a power plant, sitting right in the middle of some 2 million acres targeted for thinning by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

But don’t count on it, cautions Novo Power President and CEO Brad Worsley.

It’s not the location.

It’s the water.

A biomass plant capable of producing about 30 megawatts of power by burning the brush and small trees cleared from 15,000 acres would need a million gallons of water every day to keep the boilers cool, he said. That’s about 3 acre-feet of water every day or 1,000 acre-feet annually.

Payson will have plenty of water once the C.C. Cragin pipeline starts gushing water this spring. Payson currently uses 1,800 acre-feet of water annually from its underground aquifer — but the pipeline will deliver an additional 3,000 acre-feet. However, the pipeline and the existing aquifer produce high-quality drinking water.

By contrast, the huge Coconino aquifer atop the Rim mostly has salty, mineral-laden water not fit for drinking, but perfectly fine for cooling a biomass power plant, said Worsley.

On the other hand, the existing Novo Power Plant near Snowflake could handle a huge mass of brush and small trees culled from the thick, overgrown, fire-prone forests around Payson and other Rim Country communities, said Worsley.

A biomass plant can generally make money on wood hauled roughly 70 miles to a new power plant or perhaps 120 miles to the existing Novo Power plant in Snowflake, said Worsley.

Worsley said his company has already done all the groundwork for an additional 50 megawatt power plant it could build in Snowflake. The company has located a mothballed biomass power plant in Texas. The company could have that plant moved and up and running in Snowflake within about 20 months at a cost of $100 million, said Worsley.

By contrast, a study by Arizona Public Service estimated it would cost $500 million to build a new biomass plant from scratch.

Worsley said building a second plant near Snowflake would save time on permits and site preparation, since the facility already has air quality permits, water rights and waste treatment facilities.

Moreover, a biomass power plant would gain efficiencies from locating near other wood processing operations, like sawmills.

Once the ACC approves a biomass mandate, other companies may seek to build biomass plants throughout the 4FRI area, which stretches from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border.

Forest restoration backers at last week’s ACC hearing argued against an attempt to include provisions that would require the construction of new power plants — rather than allowing an expansion of the of the existing Novo plant in Snowflake.

The imposition of a mandate could increase interest in building such power plants. However, when APS put out a request for proposals previously, the only bidder was Novo Power.

Worsley said potential locations for additional biomass plants include Winslow, an additional plant in Show Low and perhaps Camp Navajo, federally owned land near Flagstaff.

Worsley noted that a biomass plant in either Winslow or Snowflake could accelerate the thinning of the forests in both the White Mountains and in much of Rim Country.

The existing Novo biomass plant in Snowflake can produce 28 megawatts from the brush and trees cleared from 15,000 acres annually. This has proved essential to the pace of thinning in the White Mountains, where most of the thinning has so far taken place.

A plant in Snowflake could handle biomass from the ponderosa, pinyon and juniper forests around Payson. Pinyon and juniper burns hot and produces a lot of ash, but makes for a good fuel when mixed with pine, said Worsley.

So the biomass mandate could dramatically accelerate the thinning of forests throughout the region, even if Payson doesn’t get its own facility, he said.

However, complications remain.

For instance, the critical watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir lies just outside the range of a plant in Snowflake, due to the time it takes to haul the biomass out on the network of dirt roads.

Payson, the U.S. Forest Service, Salt River Project and the Forest Foundation have teamed up to thin the 64,000-acre watershed of the reservoir, which holds the key to Payson’s water future. The Forest Service hopes to find contractors to thin the watershed from perhaps 800 trees per acre to something like 100 trees per acre. However, the lack of a market for the biomass will likely slow those efforts.

Thinning an acre of ponderosa pine forests produces about 26 tons of logs from trees between 8 and 18 inches in diameter. It also produces about 25-40 tons of biomass, from the brush, small trees and branches.

Worsley detailed the complicated calculus of turning such woody debris into electricity.

Crews cut the trees, strip the branches and turn the saplings, brush and trimmings into wood chips on site. They then load the biomass onto one truck and the logs onto another truck.

Once the logs get to a mill, another 20 or 30 percent of the log gets turned into biomass, as the mill squares off the trunks and strips off the bark. That’s another reason it makes sense to put a biomass plant next to a mill.

“If you want to increase your haul distance from 70 miles to 120 miles, you’re going to pay an extra $100 an hour in trucking costs. If you’re on the highway, this gives you more range than if you’re on a dirt road. That extra 50 miles is going to add $200 going and coming. So that’s going to increase the cost $38 to $40 a bone-dry ton to something in the $45 to $50 a ton range.”

That calculation determines how far you can afford to haul the biomass — and therefore will determine where any additional biomass plants will end up.

Creating a market for biomass will have another huge advantage, besides reducing the risk of crown fires and boosting rural economies.

Air quality
Burning biomass in a power plant reduces the potentially dangerous pollutants contained in the smoke of a wildfire by about 98 percent, said Worsley.

“When we burn it, you don’t see smoke, you don’t smell smoke.”

Assorted national studies have demonstrated the smoke from wildfires — especially high-intensity megafires — has a huge potential impact on human health as well as shifts in the climate.

Biomass also has a big advantage over emissions from coal and natural gas power plants.

All three types of plants produce similar emissions, with pollution controls removing much of the sulfur.

Fortunately, biomass plants actually have a big advantage over coal-fired and natural gas plants when it comes to meeting federal regulations on carbon dioxide emissions, the most common greenhouse gas.

Biomass plants are considered “carbon neutral” since the trees would either burn in a wildfire or die and decay anyway. Coal and natural gas present an entirely different picture. Mined coal and natural gas have been buried for millions of years. So when it’s pulled out of the ground and burned, it adds carbon to the atmosphere.

“If you compare biomass to open air burning, there’s no comparison — you have a 98 percent reduction in particulates,” said Worsley.

“Natural gas and coal are using sequestered carbon — as if they are adding carbon into the atmosphere. It’s been sequestered — and they’re pulling it back up and burning — that’s where biomass becomes carbon neutral,” said Worsley.

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