My Turn: Basin biomass plant examined
October 11, 2010
KINGS BEACH, Calif. and#8212; Placer County proposes to construct a biomass power plant in Kings Beach. Their reasons are as follows: Itand#8217;s a cleaner option than open burning, it reduces transportation costs (compared to locations outside the basin) and it furthers Californiaand#8217;s goals of using renewable, green energy.
How can such reasons justify the combustion of 25-75 tons of woody biomass daily (1 megawatt to 3 megawatts) in the Lake Tahoe Basin? Some material would originate outside the Tahoe basin, and trucked in and burned next to an Outstanding National Resource Water. Closer examination of the context for each reason reveals the faulty logic and half truths.
Controlled combustion emits less air pollution than open burning. Obviously. (TRPA banned open fireplaces in new construction years ago and placed restrictions to change out old woodstoves with new ones that meet Phase II emission requirements). To assume this fact justifies a combustion power plant in the basin ignores the comparison of duration and location of the two combustion options.
Do prescribed burns at Tahoe occur 24/7 at the same location for 30 years (the life of a biomass incinerator)? A biomass plant, by definition, is stationary and burns constantly year round. Open burning is seasonal, lasts only for a matter of days, and occurs at sporadic locations around the basin.
Open burning is permitted only under favorable meteorological conditions. The forest service admits that prescribed burns will likely continue on slopes greater than 30 percent and for ecological purposes.
The choice is not between open burning versus controlled incineration in the Tahoe basin. Itand#8217;s between open burning and the harvesting (cutting, collection, chipping, transporting and drying) of forest material into a usable fuel. Open burning is the least expensive way to remove forest debris, where as harvesting forest debris from fuels reduction (thinning) is very expensive and must be heavily subsidized. The current market for fuel grade biomass is about $30-50 per dry ton, while the cost of harvesting is four to seven times greater.
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Biomass plants are viable when utilizing a ready-to-burn waste product such as from a sawmill. Logging operations may pile tree tops and branches for later utilization, but log sales revenue carries this cost.
Forest thinning for fire fuels reduction is a costly process, dependent on public funds to carry the work in the forest along with the costs of conversion to fuel. In general, transportation costs can be a significant portion of biomass conversion costs, but the proposed Kings Beach power plant has a different context. In the North and West Shore areas of the basin, green material must first be transported to Cabin Creek (Eastern Regional Landfill) on Highway 89 a few miles south of Truckee, well outside the Tahoe basin. There the material has historically been stored, dried and processed. About half the weight of green material is water, so a 25 ton van load contains only 13 tons of and#8220;bone dryand#8221; ready-to-burn fuel. A biomass plant at Cabin Creek would eliminate any further transportation costs.
If no plant is built at Cabin Creek, the choice is to either continue hauling the final product 42 miles to the existing Loyalton biomass plant (as Placer County has done for 16 years), or haul the material 17 miles back into the Tahoe basin for burning in Kings Beach. The difference of 25 miles bears little on the cost of transportation for a 25 ton load of ready-to-burn fuel.
A biomass plant in Kings Beach is green energy from a renewable source and therefore advances Californiaand#8217;s goals toward a renewable energy future. The same can be said of burning the material at the Loyalton plant or at Cabin Creek. If the context is whatand#8217;s good for the state, then it doesnand#8217;t matter where the incineration takes place as long as it is in California. The Loyalton plant (rated at 20 megawatts) has been operating at half capacity for years due to a shortage of fuel. The biomass feedstock for the proposed plant in Kings Beach would instead make the Loyalton plant more functional and economical as a renewable energy source.
Placer County received a $1.4 million as a federal earmark from Sen. Feinstein to advance biomass utilization. Even though the federal and state governments seem willing to spend money, they donand#8217;t have to push a power plant in the Tahoe basin; at some point the mistaken context on every justification will come to light. Letand#8217;s hope for sooner rather than later.
Dave McClure is president of the North Tahoe Citizen Action Alliance, based in Tahoe Vista.