PHOENIX — The Arizona Corporation Commission torched forest restoration efforts last week by voting 3-2 to ditch a proposed rule requiring utilities to produce 60-90 megawatts (MW) of electricity from biomass.
Specifically, the divided commission voted to not move forward on a plan to convert one unit of the soon-to-close Cholla power plant to burning up to 60 MW of wood scraps, presumably from some 50,000 acres worth of forest restoration projects.
Officials throughout Northern Arizona have been lobbying the corporation commission for a year to create a market for the millions of tons of wood scraps. Such biomass accounts for about half of the material removed by thinning an acre of forest from the current density of 500-1,000 trees per acre to a more normal 50-100 trees per acre. The lack of a market for forest scraps has stalled forest restoration efforts for a decade.
Local officials like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin pleaded with the corporation commission to adopt the biomass rule and approve the conversion of Cholla to biomass. They said only creating a market for biomass will spur the thinning efforts necessary to prevent the new era of megafires from eventually consuming whole forest communities, as they’ve already done in California.
Trout Unlimited representative Joe Miller also urged the commission to adopt the rule, since it provides one of the few hopes for the kind of large-scale thinning necessary to prevent the kind of post-crown-fire erosion that can destroy healthy watersheds, filling reservoirs with mud.
The commission majority remained unmoved by the desperate pleas of forest restoration advocates.
A study by Arizona Public Service concluded that converting one unit of the coal-fired Cholla power plant would create a market for enough biomass to thin 50,000 acres annually, which is the target pace for the Forest Service’s 4-Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), the largest forest restoration effort in the nation’s history. APS spent $2.5 million on a feasibility study, which concluded biomass would cost more than natural gas and therefore would boost the average customer’s bill by $3-$5 per month.
Commissioner Justin Olson led the charge against biomass, arguing electricity users shouldn’t have to subsidize forest restoration efforts through higher monthly bills.
He was joined by commissioners Bob Burns as well as Sandra Kennedy, the lone Democratic on the board.
Commissioner Boyd Dunn fought to at least leave the door open to a biomass rule, with the support of newly appointed commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson.
Cholla is slated to close in 2024, due to ongoing concerns about air pollution and the cost advantages of natural gas and solar over coal. Burning biomass would emit less pollution, but would also count as carbon neutral emissions, since the carbon locked up in the trees and brush would be released into the atmosphere in the short-term anyway — through either decay or wildfires.
That leaves just one biomass power plant in Arizona, NovoPower in Snowflake. NovoPower currently has contracts with APS and the Salt River Project to generate electricity, but those contracts are set to expire soon. NovoPower has sustained thinning efforts in the White Mountains, which have restored some 50,000 acres in the past decade. Those thinning projects are credited with saving Alpine and perhaps Springerville from the Wallow Fire, the largest in the state’s history. By contrast, a sequence of 4FRI contracts has thinned about 15,000 acres in the past 5-8 years.
Miller observed, “Olson seemed intent on blocking any further considerations of biomass-based power generation as a way of facilitating forest treatments, obviously backed by Kennedy – because that makes it somebody else’s fault, and by Burns on concerns of unfairly burdening possibly just APS ratepayers. Lots of positioning and plenty of undercurrents in the discussion.”
Miller said the 4FRI stakeholders group will regroup and try to figure out what they can do next to create a market that could allow for real progress in forest restoration — or at least save the scattered seeds of the forest products industry necessary to thin the forest without a massive federal subsidy or a devastating series of crown fires.
“We need to regroup and charge forward with whoever and whatever entities need to be involved,” said Miller.
Peter Aleshire covers county government for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at email@example.com