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Stacks of slash

A large collection of pine-needles and bark commonly, called biomass, gathered within the thinning area of the Dry Lake Hills in this file photo.

The Arizona Corporation Commission denied a potential biomass bottleneck solution that the utility regulators required Arizona Public Service to propose, citing the financial impacts on individual ratepayers.

The solution would help clear northern Arizona forests of unwanted biomass like needles, branches and bark that are left over from projects like the 2.4-million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), debris that can cause a serious fire danger for watersheds, ponderosa pine forest health and community structures if left in the forests. Currently, the biomass is piled and burned in the forests, because of its lack of value in timber products, which can impact nearby communities.

With a 3 to 2 vote last week, commissioners denied requiring APS’s application to move forward with converting a coal-burning generator at the Cholla Power Plant into one that burns forest byproducts. APS can still file the application on their own, however commissioners who supported the plan felt the vote sent a wrong message. If APS continues with the request for bids, it would eventually return to the commission that had the votes to oppose the plan's underlying cost.

Implementing the plan would have also sustained jobs at the plant in Navajo County, which is currently set to close in 2025.

Commissioners Justin Olson, Sandra Kennedy, and Bob Burns all voted to deny the current application to move forward, while commissioners Boyd Dunn and Lea Marquez Peterson voted in support of forward progress.

Dunn said the tone of the commission’s denial will discourage any further proposed answers to their policy statement that looks for biomass energy solutions. Peterson also agreed, saying she felt the decision was sending the wrong message.

“I think it’s been so hard to get one response over these years to try to deal with this issue that a vote in favor from my perspective would send a different message than intended,” Dunn said.

A common thread among the dissenting voters was the financial impact to ratepayers, and the sentiment that the state legislature should pay for the work.

The dissenting commissioners said a total bill of $40 million was too much for ratepayers to pay in their bills. According to an APS representative at the meeting, ratepayers would have likely seen an increase of about $1 per month on their bills.

The bill would also be split by other ratepayers that would be expected to help share the burden of costs for Tucson Electric Power, UniSource Energy and Salt River Project. If the other utilities did not come on board in this decision, the solution would have been effectively quashed.

Kennedy underlined the cost in multiple meetings on the topic, and continued to oppose the cost to ratepayers.

“The policy said little to no cost, and that’s not what I heard today,” Kennedy said.

Olson outlined many of the benefits of the clearing the forests, but believed the Arizona Corporation Commission was not the right agency to make the call. He felt the Arizona State Legislature was better suited to pay for the biomass facility through their taxpayer budget rather than consumer bills.

Olson put the motion to deny the application to a vote and said he hoped 4FRI's new request for proposal on phase two would bring back some creative solutions.

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“If after getting the results of that RFP it becomes clear that the biomass is an obstacle to moving forward, then I would support, as you’ve described, putting some proposal to take the legislature,” Olson said.

Originally, APS hoped by issuing a request for biomass fuel proposals, they would assist 4FRI’s phase two request for bids by offering a more complete picture of how forest thinning operations could remove their biomass. It will only be clear how biomass removal impacted the phase two request for proposals once the window to bid has closed.

Ethan Aumack, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, who spoke to commissioners at the meeting about the decision, said afterward that bringing the question to the state legislature would come with its own problems.

“The problem here is there needs to be some degree of significant support that some would call a subsidy for a long period of time, 10 to 15 years,” Aumack said. “The likelihood of state legislature finding those funds under that time period is slim.”

Aumack acknowledged the commission’s decision was a setback, and said Congress, the Forest Service, the state, many counties and many city agencies have stepped up to join the negotiating table. He believes a subsidy of some sort was likely going to be needed to solve this problem.

“We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” Aumack said. “We’ve been working on accelerating forest restoration for decades. This is just one more hurdle to clear.”

This article has been updated from its original version.

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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Senior Reporter - Cops, Environment

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