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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