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Could biomass be the answer?

On any given winter day, crews from the Washington Ridge Conservation Camp can be spotted in the forest, burning piles of brush.

Now just imagine if that energy could be harnessed to bring heat to the buildings at the camp itself, or to other public buildings in Nevada County.

The Sierra Economic Development District was recently awarded a grant from the United States Forest Service to explore just that possibility.



“It is a new activity for us in this area; it is based on the Montana fuels to schools program,” said Betty Riley, SEDD’s president. She also added that since the program is new to California, too, there were still several “unknowns.”

One of the largest unknowns is how much it would cost.




“If you could get one to be built for half million, you’d be pretty lucky,” said Dan Stevenson, an engineer with CTA Inc., a Montana-based company that has designed about 10 biomass plants for public buildings in Montana, Idaho, and Nevada. The payoff can be enormous, however.

Each year, Stevenson said a plant can save a facility about $60,000 per year.

Nevada County would hardly be the first county to give the fuels program a try. It has caught on in Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, and Vermont – states where winters are long and cold and heating costs for public buildings can be extraordinarily high.

It also works best in areas that have large amounts of biomass, which can be anything from chipped wood to agriculture byproducts. Heavily forested areas are particularly well-suited for this type of program.

“The fuels to schools program here in the northwest was developed around the concept of using chipped forest waste, slash from forest waste reduction,” Stevenson said. “What we’ve been doing is using fairly standard chipping, hauling it by truck to the boiler plant.”

If the program is found suitable for Nevada County, it would also use a significant amount of chips, giving the Forest Service a way to rid their lands of cleared brush without burning. Private homeowners would also be able to dispose of their brush rather than burning it or chipping it via the county’s Fire Safe Council chipping program.

It can also be considered a better solution than solar, particularly for forested areas where intensive brush clearing is underway, as is the case in the Sierra.

“Biomass power is a direct replacement for conventional fossil fuel energy plants. It doesn’t have to be a clear sunny day (to work),” said Tom Amesbury, a forester with Foresters Co-Op, the consulting company that has been hired with the grant to assess the viability of the project in Nevada County.

One of the most common questions is about emissions and air quality.

“The equipment that is available on the market meets or exceeds all air quality permits in California otherwise they wouldn’t be considered,” Amesbury said.

Nevada County school officials have already begun looking at alternative energy sources to supply their needs. In 2005, the Champion Mine and Union Hill Schools were both fitted with solar panels. Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer said that endeavor saves the county about $65,000 per year.

“Nevada County schools are probably collectively the largest consumers of electric and gas,” he said. He said he supports the research on the viability of biomass energy for the area’s public buildings.

“Anything is possible and I think it is exciting.”


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