PHOENIX — An Arizona Corporation Commission member has asked for a re-hearing on a rejected mandate for power companies to burn biomass, which remains the key to the success of forest thinning efforts.
In a detailed letter filed on Monday, Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson cited an article in the White Mountain Independent in making the urgent plea to reconsider requiring utilities to buy at least 90 megawatts of power annually from burning the brush, saplings and wood slash from thinning projects. The mandate would support the thinning of some 50,000 acres annually and rescue the stalled 4-Forests Restoration Initiative.
“Peter Aleshire wrote an article titled ‘California is burning. Are we next?’ He highlights the perilous state of our forests and points out that 66 percent of our power lines go through areas that are at high risk for catastrophic wildfires. If we maintain the status quo, he argues, that number will increase to 74 percent. While Arizona’s utilities have done better than their Western neighbors at thinning vegetation and clearing land around their utility infrastructure, there is always some level of threat,” she said in a compelling, four-page letter to her fellow commissioners.
Commissioner Peterson’s request will be considered by commission chairman Bob Burns, who may or may not place the item on the commission’s open meeting docket for Dec. 10-11. Burns control’s the commission’s agendas.
The earlier this year, the commission rejected a 60 megawatt mandate, which killed an Arizona Public Service proposal to convert a unit at the Cholla Power plant from coal to biomass. It also may force the eventual shutdown of the only biomass-burning power plant in the state — the 28 mega-watt NovoPower plant in Snowflake. That power plant supported thinning projects in the White Mountains credited with saving Alpine and perhaps Springerville from the Wallow Fire.
The commission rejected the mandate on a 3-2 vote, with several commissioners arguing ratepayers should not have to subsidize forest thinning efforts through their electric bills. An APS study concluded biomass power is more expensive than building new, natural gas plants. So ratepayers would pay an extra $1 to $5 a month if the company sought to recover the $134 million cost of converting one Cholla unit to biomass.
Advocates said ratepayers would save far more money if a market for biomass made it possible to thin the forest, averting wildfire damage to power lines, communities and watersheds.
Peterson agreed, noting that Pacific Gas & Electric lines have started an estimated 1,500 fires in the past three years, bankrupting the company. This year millions of California residents have suffered widespread, prolonged outages after power companies shut down transmission lines. The outages were an effort to prevent high winds from knocking down power lines and starting a fire. Wildfire smoke can also cause electrical current to jump from one line to another, causing outages and damage to the lines.
“Perhaps the sight of our neighbors and friends in California being forced from their homes, finding themselves without power for days on end, and bearing the very real economic, environmental and safety costs of this disaster may prompt our reconsideration,” wrote the newest commissioner, appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to fill a vacancy on the commission.
Peterson noted that Arizona got a taste of the threat when the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned 450,000 acres and consumed 400 homes — inflicting more than $500 million in economic damage — five times what it would cost to convert Cholla.
She noted that already fire insurance rates are climbing statewide. In California, some 124,000 insurance claims in 2017 and 2018 totaled some $26 billion.
“While this commission does not directly regulate insurance markets, we do have a chance to reduce risk from wildfires by diversifying our renewable energy mix to include more biomass,” she wrote.
She noted that the Forest Service has now released its environmental assessment of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative’s (4FRI) plan to thin some 1.2 million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains. The plan revolves around finding a market for the biomass that has no value to loggers, but constitutes about half of the material contractors will have to remove. Biomass power plants at this point represent virtually the only economical way to get rid of perhaps 30 tons of biomass on every acre cleared.
“It seemed to be the position of my fellow commissioners that we should just wait for the conclusion of the RFP process and hope that solutions to deal with biomass waste will be part of the proposal set. I believe that position is a mistake,” the commissioner wrote.
She said the Forest Service’s Regional Forester, Cal Joyner, told her the biomass remains the biggest problem contractors face. She quotes him as saying, “Any action of the commission to create a demand for that biomas would both help existing industry and could likely ensure an array of well-capitalized proposals to the RFP, and one of the chief impediments to dramatically accelerating the pace of forest restoration.”
She noted that wildfires remain a critical threat — not only to homes and power lines, but to watersheds and air quality. She noted that wildfires in California from 2012-2015 released 70 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the state spent billions to reduce emissions from cars and power plants by 20 million tons. The wildfires in 2018 released more heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere than all vehicle and industrial sources in California that year.
However, burning biomass in a power plant captures 95 percent of the harmful emissions. “Not only will we reduce emissions at the Cholla plant by moving away from coal, but we can experience the added benefit of avoiding emissions released by massive fires as well,” she concluded.
The biomass mandate would also have a huge benefit for watersheds, on which those same ratepayers depend, she argued. “Virtually all of the snow and rain that falls in Arizona’s high country feeds the watersheds that provides water to the state’s metropolitan areas.”
She concluded, “I feel we simply cannot afford to wait any longer. This commission exercising its unique constitutional authority to show leadership on behalf of the Arizona public and avoid potential disaster is both good and right. We can do our part as a Commission to protect our forests, our water resources and our people. I also believe that if we show the moral courage to act, others will join. Never before has this state had such an opportunity to address this issue. I hope we will not let it slip through our fingers.”
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson on Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org