ARIZONA — Hope for a way to handle millions of tons of biomass that will largely determine the fate of large scale forest restoration efforts continues to flicker, fade and glow.
But like Tinker Bell in a fairy tale, someone has to applaud to keep her from just fading away.
And maybe Salt River Project just clapped, saying it will keep an open mind when it comes to burning biomass at one of its units at the 750-megawatt coal-fired power plant near St. Johns in Apache County.
The Coronado Generating Station could create a market for biomass to jumpstart forest restoration efforts stalled for a decade.
But so far, it is just a fairy’s flicker.
Salt River Project delivers both energy and water to a million Valley customers, so it has a stake in the health of forested watersheds. Studies show a crown fire in the overgrown and unhealthy forest could not only consume Payson and Show Low, but spur erosion that would fill with mud reservoirs on the Verde, Gila and Salt River watersheds.
“Certainly, we know the benefit of a healthy watershed,” said SRP Spokesman Scott Harelson. “It’s part of our core with respect to water and managing the watershed and that’s part of the equation when we look at how we move forward. But we have to respect the economics as well.”
That offers a ray of hope for forested communities and advocates for the stalled 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI). It also helps lighten the gloom that has settled over restoration advocates since the Arizona Corporation Commission balked at requiring the utilities it regulates to generate at least 90 megawatts of power annually from burning biomass.
That’s not much power – compared to the 2,000 megawatts generated by the now-shuttered Navajo Generating Station or the 750 megawatts produced by SRP’s Coronado plant.
But it’s enough to support the thinning of more than 50,000 acres annually, the 4FRI goal so long sought but never approached. The lack of a market for the 30 or 50 tons of low-value biomass on almost every acre of the forest has stymied efforts so far.
Arizona Public Service did a study on the impact of converting to biomass one unit of its slated-to-close Cholla coal-fired plant. The study concluded it would cost about $100 million to convert the plant. The power produced would cost less than coal with fewer environmental impacts. But it would still cost more than new solar, wind or natural gas plants. The APS study suggested the Corporation Commission would have to authorize APS to pass along the extra costs to ratepayers, raising bills by maybe $1 a month.
On a 3-2 vote, the corporation commission refused mandate. One commissioner this month made an impassioned plea to reconsider the decision in light of the billions of dollars of damage inflicted by California wildfires. Wildfires actually bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric, whose downed power lines started several fires. On windy days when the fire danger is high, the California utility sometimes cuts power to millions to prevent the wind from knocking down another power line. However, ACC Chairman Bob Burns refused to put the request on the agenda, arguing that rate payers shouldn’t have to subsidize the market for biomass. He wants to wait until the Forest Service finishes analyzing bids for a million acres of restoration projects in Rim County and the White Mountains. Those bids are expected in the first quarter of 2020.
SRP’s continued interest in burning biomass has added a new element to the discussion. SRP is a public district with an elected board, while APS is a corporation with stockholders. That means SRP isn’t regulated by the corporation commission.
Previously, SRP has said it would likely continue its existing contracts with the 28 MW NovoPower biomass plant near Snowflake. The expiration of an earlier ACC mandate that power companies develop renewable energy had placed the survival of even that operation in doubt. NovoPower’s partially responsible for the ability of contractors to thin some 50,000 acres in the White Mountains in the past five years or so. Such thinning projects likely saved Springerville and Alpine from the Wallow Fire.
Harelson said SRP did a test in 2016 that involved burning biomass and wood scraps in one unit of the coal-fired Coronado plant.
The test revealed some problems, mostly related to reducing the biomass to the same talcum powder consistency of the pulverized coal the plant normally burns.
“It was definitely a learning experience for SRP,” said Harelson. “I think the problems were related to systems that tended to get clogged, because of issues in getting the materials to the consistency of the coal.”
The plant’s location could be another issue. The cost of hauling the low-value biomass to the power plant could increase the cost difference between biomass and natural gas or solar.
“The transportation costs change the economics,” Harelson noted.
On the other hand, SRP’s in the middle of the complicated process of deciding when to close its remaining coal-fired plants. The Coronado plant with its 200 local jobs could close sometime between 2024 and 2035 depending on a variety of factors. Burning biomass could play a role in the discussion about biomass.
“We have some decisions that have to be made very soon because of regulatory requirements associated with environmental requirements related to the burning of coal. Our focus now is trying to move forward,” said Harelson.
So major uncertainties remain as the Forest Service waits for the contract proposals to thin a million acres of Rim Country and White Mountains forest – with the survival of every forested community in the balance.
But, hey, at least Tinker Bell’s flickering.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org