The phrase alternative energy creates images of solar panel fields fanning out and large metallic windmills spinning in the distant horizon.
But biomass, a lesser known but equally important member of the alternative energy portfolio, is slated to achieve a more prominent role in the northern Sierra region.
The Placer County Planning Commission recently approved a conditional use permit and certified the environmental impact report for the proposed 2-megawatt biomass facility located off Highway 89 near the Nevada/Placer County border.
Biomass facilities essentially convert wood-based organic material gathered from the environment into electricity, using gasification technology that is used as fuel for an internal combustion engine.
The project is slated to be constructed at the Cabin Creek recycling facility off Highway 89 on Placer County-owned property, according to a news release issued by Placer County.
The project would include construction of an 11,000-square-foot building that would house the power generating and emissions control equipment and a 1-acre fuel storage area, the release states. The proposed project would use biomass currently being removed from surrounding United States Forest Service, state and private land as part of ongoing wildfire fuel reduction efforts.
Walter Levings, natural resource staff for Tahoe National Forest, said his organization has “long been in support of utilization” of biomass, adding that trucking costs make it prohibitive to use some existing plants in California, but the imminent construction in proximity to the forest is positive.
“It’s an alternative to open burning, which you can only perform so many days,” Levings said. “Also, there is not as much air pollution (when using a biomass facility), which has positive health effects on local residents.”
The forest service, along with Cal Fire, routinely performs forest-thinning projects to make the wildland forests more resilient to fire. In doing so, the agencies create a large amount of slash, fuel and wood piles.
Currently, the agencies perform what is called prescribed fire or pile burning, meaning large piles of collected material are burned by trained professionals during times when there is enough moisture in the surrounding environment.
Open burning is controversial in that it creates air quality issues and sometimes can be a nuisance, as in the instance
of Slaughterhouse Canyon in the Lake Tahoe Basin in June 2010.
That fire, started by the U.S. Forest Service, grew to 225 acres due to windy conditions and created an enormous plume of smoke.
Biomass can be a source of jobs, Levings said, as workers will be needed to collect the material, load it into trucks and haul it to the facility.
Keith Logan, owner of Logan Associates, a sustainability consulting firm in Nevada County, agreed that a biomass plant would provide a solution for various agencies that conduct fuels management operations that involve removal of biomass from forests as a wildland
fire prevention tactic, during a previous interview with The Union.
“If you can offset the cost of fuels removal by finding some use for the fuels, that is absolutely a solution,” Logan said.
However, from the standpoint of energy efficiency, biomass is inferior to more traditional forms of energy production, such as natural gas or coal, Logan said.
Dry wood optimally burns at 8,400 British thermal units, which is about half as efficient as coal, which burns in the range of 13,500 to 15,000 BTUs.
Nevertheless, many officials see biomass facilities as a solution to wildfire prevention and reduction of regional dependence on fossil fuels.
Levings said he would like to see biomass utilization gain the same type of subsidies that utility companies are providing for wind-powered and solar alternatives.
“Biomass gets less political support, but it would be nice to see a level playing field,” he said.
Forest thinning helps officials manage the upper watersheds of the Sierra, provides for more fire resiliency and reduces the potential for catastrophic wildfire, while maintaining some of the region’s most valuable wildlife habitat, Levings said.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.