Biomass in the making

In this 2017 file photo a machine shoots wood chips into the back of a truck during a tree thinning operation in the Kaibab National Forest. APS recently released a request for proposals that would use biomass, usually in the form of wood chips, from Arizona forests to generate a small portion of the energy the utility sends to customers around the state.

The Arizona Corporation Commission discussed the feasibility of converting the Cholla Power Plant into a power plant fueled by forest thinning byproducts on Tuesday, with the hopes that it would help the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) complete its forest thinning goal.

At their meeting, all commissioners agreed on the unhealthy state of the forests in northern Arizona and 4FRI’s problem with forest-thinning byproducts -- or biomass. If 4FRI does not find a way to rid the federal-owned forests of the needles, bark and branches left over from forest thinning, catastrophic wildfires might still occur after thinning is completed.

What was not agreed upon at the meeting, however, was whether Arizona citizens should pay for fixing forests as a part of their utility bill.

The study was done by Arizona Public Service and the conclusion was that converting the generator would cost $205 million and could be completed by 2022. It also concluded that it was the most cost-effective option they had been proposed, and would save some jobs for the region. The Cholla Power Plant is currently scheduled to close their units that generate power using coal in 2025.

The push for this plan was initiated by commissioner Andy Tobin, who seemed receptive of the idea of using the power plant for biomass power. The current plan would require 60 megawatts of power from biomass, a small portion of APS’s total output.

“I think what I’m hearing is Cholla is fast becoming the number one opportunity that we’ll have for getting additional biomass energy,” Tobin said.

However, commissioner Sandra Kennedy voiced concerns with the plan, saying she did not feel it was the responsibility of APS customers paying for power to also pay for the cost of converting the power plant and helping solve 4FRI’s biomass problem.

“Is this not a federal issue, rather than a state issue?” Kennedy asked.

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4FRI aspires to treat one million acres, with a goal of treating 50,000 acres per year.

Commissioner Boyd Dunn spoke to Tom Torres, deputy forest supervisor of the Tonto National Forest, when he said that he wished the U.S. Forest Service would spend the money to handle the issue of forest health itself. Dunn, however, didn’t have much hope in seeing timely results.

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“I don’t see [federal funding] turning around very quickly,” Dunn said. “That’s why I feel this is an emergency in my state, in Arizona, to try to turn the cycle.”

David Tenney, director of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, attended the meeting and agreed with Dunn that while it may not be the state ratepayers' responsibility, it was a problem that affected the state’s ratepayers.

“What I’m saying is, the national forests are overgrown,” Tenney said. “There is not the appetite at the congressional level to fund it. And we can either say it is their fault and it is their problem, or we can step up and say we have a possible solution and maybe we should look at it and not see if it’s worth us diving into.”

Jeff Burke, director of resource management at Arizona Public Service who explained APS’s feasibility study to the commission, said APS would like to begin looking for companies to contract delivering biomass at the same time as 4FRI begins to look for new logging contractors this summer.

Burke indicated that they would to make an action soon, and the commission plans to vote on this issue in June.

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


Senior Reporter - Cops, Environment

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