What will be the future of energy in the Sierra?

Momentum toward construction of a 2-megawatt biomass facility in western Nevada County was on full display at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Several speakers and a united board made the case that a biomass facility would address a suite of forest issues, including thinning an overgrown national forest susceptible to catastrophic wildfire due to the density of trees and brush, reducing the amount of open pile burning and reducing reliance on fossil fuels by creating energy with renewable resources, while creating jobs in a region that historically relied on resource extraction industries, such as timber.

“This really makes the case for the nexus between good forest management, fire safety and appropriate and valuable use of resources generated,” said Supervisor Terry Lamphier.

Steve Eubanks, former supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest and member of the Northern Sierra Biomass Utilization Task Force, said the volunteer organization is attempting to garner about $50,000 to fund a Biomass Feasibility Assessment. The assessment seeks to identify potential locations for a biomass, the amount of material available on a sustainable basis within a 30-mile radius of the potential plant, the ability to connect to the electrical grid, transportation and noise issues.

Katy Eckert, chief fiscal administrative officer with the Nevada County Health and Human Services Agency, confirmed her departmental staff is recommending the board of supervisors approve a $43,000 grant to the biomass task force during the April 12 regular meeting.

The grant would derive from the Community Development Block Grant program administered annually by the federal government, Eckert said.

All five supervisors professed tentative support for the pursuit of a feasibility study.

“Maybe there are four or five core areas where we could establish a plant, where there is enough fuel around it,” said Chairman Hank Weston, who served as the Grass Valley Fire Department chief from 1997 to 2006. “The feasibility study is most important, and that’s where we begin and from there we can move forward.”

Unhealthy forests

Malcolm North, an ecological scientist with University of California, Davis, said California forests have long since passed the “tipping point” in terms of overgrowth, during a presentation Tuesday for the board of supervisors.

Historically, fire was present in the forests with modest ground fires occurring every 10 to 15 years. With modern fire suppression tactics fully in force throughout the state, fire is restricted from performing its naturally occurring thinning duties. Thus, the forest is overgrown as the current density of trees in most swathes of California forest far exceeds tree density in the forest before the arrival of European settlers, North said.

“In the national forest, only 8 percent of the annual growth is taken out of the forests,” North said.

North said the current condition creates an atmosphere more conducive to large destructive wildland fires as the density of trees allows for fiercer, hotter fires to spread faster and create far more damage. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent by federal and state governments in fighting fire could be dramatically reduced if more funds were directed toward forest-thinning projects, North said. The overgrowth not only allows more voracious blazes but hurts the overall health of the forest as there is more competition for soil moisture, rendering vast stands of the forest less resistant to drought and more susceptible to pests and disease.

The takeaway from data provided by scientists is that forest managers have begun to devise methods of mimicking the beneficial impacts the historically low-intensity fire provided as a means of preventing the high-severity fires that are happening with alarmingly increasing frequency.

Tom Quinn, supervisor of Tahoe National Forest, said the forest service has two main methods of forest thinning: contracting with timber companies to harvest demarcated stands of the forest and conducting thinning operations with the specific goal of ecological management and/or fire prevention.

Tahoe National Forest

About one-third of land in Nevada County is managed by the forest service.

For the past 105 years, the forest service has operated by identifying segments of its jurisdiction as available for removal of timber and contracted with the private sector to remove “merchantable timber,” Quinn said.

Long dead is the practice of clear cutting, which drew the ire of environmentalists throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

The contemporary practice allows the forest service to collaborate with timber companies to identify certain trees — generally between 9 and 30 inches in diameter — and allows tree harvesters to “remove merchantable trees while helping us to accomplish our fuels reduction goals,” Quinn said.

Forest service officials identify areas of the forest that can withstand “selective logging” and then put the project out to bid. In the pine-dominated strands of the Tahoe National Forest, Quinn can remember a time when five to seven companies would compete to remove specimens of the tree so conducive to home construction.

However, with the severe depression in the home-builidng market, demand has slipped considerably, as the forest service advertised three major projects in 2012 that received exactly zero bidders.

Many of the forest-thinning projects conducted by the federal agency are less about revenue generation and more directly about forest thinning and fire prevention. Yet, the projects carried out for exclusively ecological reasons have exorbitant costs associated with them, Quinn said. Depending on the amount of timber, the time of year, the degree of accessibility and the terrain, forest fuels removal projects can cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per acre.

Quinn said if the agency could sell some of the accumulated biomass material to a plant operator, it could reduce costs substantially and accomplish more projects with equivalent resources.

“It’s in all of our best interests to develop a market for biomass,” Quinn said.

Currently, the forest service conducts open pile burning, which is basically a large bonfire in the forest, to get rid of the accumulations of the woody biomass.

“On a visceral level, this just does not feel right,” Quinn said. “I mean, it’s a natural resource, and there is a feeling we should utilize it.”

The problem for Quinn is that the cost of paying contractors to physically remove the biomass from the forest, pile it onto trucks and haul it to the nearest facility, which at the present time is hundreds of miles away.

“It’s a red-ink proposition to get rid of it right now,” Quinn said.

A necklace of facilities

The largest prohibitive factor in efficient, cost-effective utilization of biomass in the Tahoe National Forest is the cost of trucking the wood away from the site to the plant.

To combat this looming problem, Quinn envisions a necklace of 2-megawatt biomass facilities, strategically placed throughout the Sierra Nevada to mitigate hauling costs, make use of a natural resource and provide non-fossil fuel renewable electricity generation to communities while creating the kind of “green jobs” many policy-makers have long been calling for.

The first chain in the necklace looks close to becoming an actuality, as the Placer County Planning Commission recently certified an Environmental Impact Report relating to a 2-megawatt biomass facility to be built at Cabin Creek, located on Highway 89, south of Truckee and north of Tahoe City. Brett Storey, the biomass program manager for Placer County, leveraged a federal grant obtained by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein with some of the county’s own money to develop plans for the facility.

If the plans are approved by the county board of supervisors, the county could enter into a contract with undisclosed members of the private sector to build the approximately $12 million facility at Cabin Creek and begin operating it. Storey has tentative agreements in place and has also worked out a deal with Liberty Energy, the utility provider in the area, to connect the plant into the electricity grid.

California Senate Bill 1122, which stipulates that utility companies produce more than “at least 250 megawatts of cumulative rated generating capacity from developers of bioenergy projects,” means more companies will look toward biomass plants as a viable means of both producing energy and conforming to law.

Storey has also entered into a tentative arrangement with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit for that entity to provide much of the biomass needed to operate the plant 24 hours a day once it comes on line.

Cabin Creek is 60 miles away from Nevada City, meaning if the Tahoe National Forest wanted to use biomass generated in western Nevada County, it would need a plant located relatively close to Grass Valley or Nevada City to make the operation pencil out, Steve Eubanks said.

Adverse environmental impacts?

Not everyone believes biomass provides the silver bullet solution that many claim.

The Center for Biological Diversity has appealed Placer County Planning Commission’s certification of the EIR, saying the plants produce concentrated air pollution and create unhealthy demand for wood that could have long-term detrimental effects on forests, while eliminating some of the natural benefits of high-severity fires.

“There are a number of adverse environmental impacts,” said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney with the center.

Specific to the Cabin Creek project, Bundy said the EIR erroneously claims much of the biomass burned at the plant would be burned in open piles, but this assertion is later contradicted by other data.

Chad Hanson, founder of the John Muir project, has consistently argued that high-intensity fire is not only essential to forest resiliency, in that it allows for vigorous conifer regeneration, but is essential habitat for certain species, such as the black-backed woodpecker.

Hanson said the black-backed woodpecker is “imperiled due to fire suppression and post-fire ‘salvage’ logging.”

North, the UC Davis scientist, said the woodpecker is not an endangered species but instead has a strong and flourishing population. North said environmentalists further show concern that aggressive thinning projects could further encroach upon habitat necessary to endangered species, such as the spotted owl or the northern goshawk, but said evidence does not support species endangerment due to thinning projects.

Instead, North said he believes thinning will provide better habitat for wildlife in that the forests will more nearly resemble their historic state.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors is tentatively slated to hear the appeal relating to the Cabin Creek Biomass Facility in Auburn May 7. The Nevada County Board of Supervisors is tentatively slated to hear the possible granting of $43,000 to the biomass task force April 12.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or 530-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Mar 29, 2013 08:38AM Published Mar 31, 2013 10:28AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.