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Biomass backing builds

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunShaun Mitchell, network administrator for Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District, puts wood chips into the BioMax 15 in Truckee.
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Placer County officials are working toward a day when reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the eastern part of the county will produce consumable energy.Referred to as a biomass project, the concept has become much more than an idea for county officials in the past year. Placer County hired a biomass project manager last year, and ideas are quickly developing into concrete plans for a plant that will either burn forest waste for energy or ferment the wood into a biofuel, said Brett Storey, the countys biomass project manager.The idea is to harness the energy from thinned trees or vegetation that would otherwise go up in smoke during prescribed burns or other forest management methods.Everyone sees the need and the use, but now its down to the details, Storey said.

Two public agencies in Truckee have worked together to get a small biomass boiler running in the town. The wood chip-fueled machine heats buildings, creates energy and melts snow.Although the Truckee Donner Public Utility District and the Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District have had some bugs with the technology, biomass is definitely an emerging and environmentally friendly energy source, said Scott Terrell, conservation director for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District.I think we all realize the potential benefit to forest health, fire safety and using what would otherwise be a wasted resource, said Terrell.The biomass machine consumes waste wood chips and gives off almost no emissions.Its super clean, Terrell said.In Placer County, the lead promoter of the biomass concept has been Supervisor Bruce Kranz. Representing a thickly forested district from North Auburn to Homewood, Kranz sees catastrophic wildfire as a looming threat to the area he represents.The biomass project, in my opinion, just happened to be something that was good for the environment. But my real goal was to do something to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, said Kranz at Mondays county supervisors meeting.Kranz has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for congressional and U.S. Forest Service support for the concept.Kranz envisions a biomass plant off of Cabin Creek Road, where the areas dump and transfer station is located.Locally, Storey said the support for Placer Countys push to become a leader in biomass energy production has been overwhelming.Every time I go somewhere, I meet three or four people who want to help, he said.Storey is now working on a five-year biomass utilization strategic plan that will include research on biomass feasibility in the county. A draft of the plan should be complete by the fall, said Storey.

While the biomass project seems to be gaining momentum, there remain several large challenges that remain for a successful biomass energy facility to be built.Storey said he wonders if the project will be attractive to a private company; what amount of biomass fuel is available; and how feasible transporting the forest products to the plant will be.The same questions have been asked by Forest Service officials in the Tahoe Basin, who support biomass projects but know there will be some challenges ahead.Un-roaded areas will have significant access challenges, as well as the very high percentage of areas that are very steep or otherwise inaccessible to vehicles, said Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the Forest Service in an e-mail interview. The cost of collecting and hauling the material in these areas may be very high, and this might complicate maintaining a regular flow of material.Areas near communities that have roads through the forest will be much easier to harvest for biomass, Norman said.We foresee biomass, particularly for the creation of energy, as playing an increasingly important role in reducing hazard fuels that contribute to catastrophic wildfire behavior, Norman said. It will not be a silver bullet solution, but will be one of the tools in our kit.The Forest Service recently funded a biomass boiler project in South Lake Tahoe that heats high school buildings, said Norman.The Forest Service plans to pursue biomass use of forest material, as well as prescribed burning, which mimics the low-intensity wildfires that are part of the natural process in forests, he said.Terrell said although the biomass technology is advancing rapidly, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District decided not to pursue a large-scale biomass plant in Truckee following analysis that went hand-in-hand with their small biomass machine.We think its feasible, said Terrell. We dont think its practical or economical.Down the road however, Terrell said he sees biomass taking off as a legitimate and practical energy source.In five to 10 years theyll probably be selling these things at Home Depot, Terrell said.The progress of using forest material, rather than sending up in air-polluting smoke, would be a significant advancement, Terrell said.A lot of this stuff is treated as waste, when it is a phenomenal resource that should be used, he said.


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