NovoPower

Biomass fueled electrical generating stations such as NovoPower in Snowflake will likey be critical to the success of the Four Forest Restoration initiative.

WHITE MOUNTAINS & RIM COUNTRY — Still bedeviled by biomass, the Forest Service has made two key changes in the structure of contracts to thin nearly a million acres of forest in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

The changes would make it clear any bidders would get a full, 20-year contract and better define how much biomass in the form of branches, saplings and down and dead wood the contracts will have to remove.

The 4-Forests Restoration Initiative will therefore postpone until March 3 the deadline for bids – and hopes to award the first round of contracts before the end of the year, according to Acting Regional Forester Elaine Kohrman.

The Forest Service received more than 100 technical questions from dozens of potential bidders when it issued its request for proposals to bidders seeking 20-year contracts to thin some or all of the nearly 1 million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains. This represents the second phase of the 2.4 million acre 4FRI project, although most of the projects in the initial 300,000 bid award remain uncut.

The bid packages indicated that in addition to the marketable trees, contractors must remove at least 50 percent of the “slash” or “biomass.” The more biomass a contractor can remove, the higher the rating for his bid.

The original language suggested the contractor would get a 20-year contract, but would have to pass the hurdle of review periods every four years.

Many of the questions from contractors centered on those two conditions.

So the amended language makes it clear that the contractor will have a two or three-year ramp-up period to develop the sawmills, biomass burning plants or other wood-processing operations needed.

“There’s going to be a demonstrated commitment” due to the investment made during the ramp-up period, said Kohrman.

History thin on thinning

Overall, 4FRI envisions thinning some 50,000 acres annually. However, in the roughly eight years in the first phase of the landmark project, the succession of contractors awarded the bid thinned only about 15,000 acres. The 4FRI approach remains virtually the only viable approach underway to avoid an Australia-style catastrophe in a forest where tree densities have increased from perhaps an historical 50 per acre to more like 1,000 per acre.

The amendments also clarify how a contractor should calculate how much slash or biomass he’ll have to remove. Generally, the slash includes branches lopped off the trees cut, tiny trees and other material not utilized. Some estimates suggest the slash represents half of the material in need of removal – and may average 50 tons per acre across much of the forest.

“A lot of the questions that came in concerned terminology that wasn’t consistent, including different definitions of words like ‘slash’ and ‘biomass.’ So what we’ve done now is worked to make that clear – how do you confirm and calculate. It’s actually been quite an effort to do that,” said Korhman.

In the past, loggers have often piled up that slash and left it behind for later burning. However, that leaves masses of dried out material on the forest floor –dramatically increasing the damage done by wildfires.

Unfortunately, there’s currently not much market for this mass of woody material. NovoPower operates a 28-megawatt biomass burning plant near Snowflake, which has sustained thinning efforts in the White Mountains for the last decade. However, NovoPower could lose its long-term contracts with Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project in a few years. That means the bidders can’t be sure a market for the biomass they must remove will exist by the time they start large-scale work.

SRP Director of Water Rights Bruce Hallin is one of the experts helping the Forest Service review the bids from contractors.

He said SRP will wait to see what proposals come in for handling the biomass in March. He did not rule out continuing a long-term contract with NovoPower or even converting a unit of the coal-fired Coronado Generating Station to biomass, if that’s what it takes to make the 4FRI thinning approach viable.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has also said it might revisit issuing a requirement utilities generate a certain amount of energy from biomass, depending on the results of the proposals. Three seats on the corporation commission will be in play in this year’s election, which could also change the lineup on the commission.

Hallin said, “SRP is encouraged” by the interest in the contracts. “We’re looking forward to helping review the industry proposals” as part of the 4FRI technical advisory committee.

Kohrman said “we do agree that biomass continues to be our most significant challenge. We’re looking for proposals that are sustainable and cost-effective.”

“We’re all supportive of industry describing how they best plan to deal with the biomass issue,” said Hallin. “From SRP’s position, biomass (burning) will probably be part of the solution.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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