The U.S. Forest Service is working on the next step of its large-scale forest restoration plan, while the Arizona Corporation Commission considers using forest byproducts for energy production.
The Arizona Corporation Commission has begun discussions to create a rule that would force Arizona Public Service to use items like branches, bark and small trees, also called biomass, to generate electricity.
Meanwhile, Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has been pushing has been working on its new Rim Country project area plan. The Rim Country project area would span the Coconino, Tonto and Apache forests southeast of Flagstaff and the first project area.
Both actions could help attract private contractors to help with the thinning projects aimed at preventing disastrous wildfires.
The Arizona Corporation Commission, which oversees the state’s utility companies, is considering whether to make a rule to mandate regulated energy utilities like APS to use forest biomass to create energy.
Biomass is currently processed through either Novo Power in Snowflake, which has an electricity generation facility, or piled and burned in the forest. Pascal Berlioux, executive director of Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, said the excess biomass left in forests poses the danger of strengthening future fires.
Stakeholders hope the commission will create the capacity for 60 megawatts of biomass energy.
The commissioners previously passed a policy decision supporting the use of biomass for renewable energy creation, but 4FRI stakeholders believe the commission needs to make a rule decision to create an effective biomass solution.
“Okay, who does it? Who pays for it? At what rate? How fast? For how long? None of that exists in a policy statement,” Berlioux said. “My characterization would be that a policy statement is mostly aspirational, a rule is executional.”
Many expect the rule decision may push costs onto APS customers. Berlioux expects the price would likely be $1 to $4 per bill if it were to pass. Art Babbott, chairman of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, said in a letter to the commission that the cost of biomass energy generation and the success of forest restoration is much less than the cost of another Schultz Fire or post-fire flood.
In his letter to the commission, Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute estimated the cost associated with potential fire and flooding is between $133 and $147 million, while the cost of restoring the area would be $2.2 to $15 million.
Other county supervisors in the state sent a letter in support of biomass use to the commission. On Thursday, the County Supervisors Association, an agency of county supervisors from the state's 15 counties, approved a letter to send to the commission in support of rulemaking on biomass.
“The potential impact to non-forested counties is not theoretical. It is real,” Babbott said. “All we need to do is look at the bankruptcy filing by PG&E that resulted in their liability for catastrophic fire around the Camp Fire [in California] to see what an incredible burden catastrophic wildfire plays on all ratepayers across the state.”
Rim Country project
Officials from 4FRI have kept information on the Rim Country request for proposals quiet at this point, but did share that the plan is in its final stages of review. Officials expect responses in May.
The request for proposals was halted in February 2018, citing a lack of information on the yield and value of timber that would be covered in the new contract. Stakeholders were concerned at the time the halt might slow down interest in the contracts.
Dick Fleishman, 4FRI operations coordinator, said 4FRI officials hoped to award one or more large-scale, long-term stewardship contracts this year in the fall or winter.
“This will be one of the first projects in the Forest Service to utilize the 20-year stewardship contracting authority,” Fleishman wrote in an email. “It’s our expectation that the resultant Phase 2 contract(s) will spur industry investment and promote a locally-based forest products industry.”
In March, APS submitted a letter stating it would be evaluating the cost and feasibility of converting their Cholla Power Plant in Joseph City to burn biomass. APS will likely submit a report showing the results of its analysis within the next month.
Converting and using biomass as a fuel source is not an easy task, compared to other fuel sources like solar, wind or coal, according to Brad Worsley, president of Novo Power. Worlsey said that because the forests are on state or federal lands snow or fire season can block access to the fuel source.
Additionally, one of the largest challenges is simply handling the biomass in the generators.
“It could have a lot of rock or dirt associated with it when comes in the door,” Worsley said. “You are dealing with a lot of times significant differences in size and everything.”
Despite the difficulties, Worsley said Novo is on board to assist with forest thinning because of the potential costs of doing nothing. He was reminded of the danger when a timer operator from Paradise, California -- where the Camp Fire burned -- visited Pinetop-Lakeside.
The man told Worsely that Paradise looked just like Pinetop-Lakeside before the wildfire.
“There could be catastrophic loss of infrastructure and life if the fires are started in the wrong place,” Worsley said.