Thursday, January 24, 2019

Biomass Decision May Save Largest Forest Restoration Effort in the Nation

The only biomass plant in Arizona.  The Novo Power 38 megawatt power plant in Snowflake.
 Photo: Karen Warnick, White Mountain Independent.

In late December the Arizona Corporation Commission agreed to require the state’s utilities to buy or produce 90 megawatts of energy annually from biomass — saving the forest restoration industry from collapse. While the final rule is not in the books, the Commission ordered staff to propose a set of rules to create a market for the 1.5 million tons of branches, brush and debris created by thinning 50,000 acres of overgrown forest annually. Part of restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, as offered by the Cohesive Strategy, is finding ways to expand biomass markets as a way to deal with the non-sawlog material that comes from forest thinning projects. 

This is also an example of stakeholders and those who carry much of the risk addressing the hard truths of uncomfortable tradeoffs to achieve resiliency on the landscape. There was reluctance among some county officials and staff to take this step because it will increase electric rates and rely on 20-year agreements with the US Forest Service who till now has struggled to find contractors to complete the large-scale work as part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), the largest restoration effort in the nation.    

In a move that will place some of the responsibility with electricity users, the Commission pointed out that large-scale thinning will likely increase runoff from millions of acres of watershed into the Valley, in a state with a worsening water shortage. Increasing forest restoration efforts will also potentially save billions in wildfire suppression costs and billions in property damage. It will also save lives by reducing deaths from air pollution from wildfires, as well as save the lives of firefighters and residents from megafires. All the while, the biomass industry will provide jobs in hard-pressed rural industries.

“We were in a desperate situation,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, a leading member of the stakeholders group for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). Martin also said Arizona Public Service and other power companies also supported the plan, along with a host of environmental groups, officials from rural counties, logging companies and advocates for economic development.

We will be keeping an eye on the final ruling to see if this big step gives the US Forest Service what it needs to enter into the long-term contracts and provide investment security for the development of a 90 megawatt power plant. In the meantime, Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting said, “It would appear the commission now understands how much this matters to Arizona and its citizens. A month ago, this was on its deathbed — but through numerous prayers and efforts from concerned citizens, leaders and elected officials we are now moving in the right direction.”  Read full article here

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