Placer County studies viability of biomass power plant

By Lisa Gibson
Posted September 16, 2009, at 2:18 p.m. CST

Lake Tahoe in Placer County, Calif., might see the construction of a biomass power plant in the coming years, as county officials look for economical and environmentally friendly ways to reduce wildfire risks in the dense forests there.

The county has proposed a plant that could produce 1 to 3 megawatts be built on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in Kings Beach adjacent to a 12-megawatt NV Energy load stability station, according to Tom Christofk, air pollution control officer for the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, a regulating agency. NV Energy provides electricity to residents of northern Nevada and northeastern California. Several other locations were considered, but this seems to be most beneficial, he said.

The plant would run on the wood fuel from local forests that is currently either burned or chipped and sent to a cogeneration plant in Loyalton, 45 miles away, Christofk said. "The Lake Tahoe region is at high risk for a catastrophic wildfire," he said. "One of the solutions I've personally tried to promote is using this for alternative energy."

The project is in the early planning stages and still needs approval from the Air Pollution Control District, Placer County and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Depending on the type of technology used, construction could cost between $4 million and $10 million, Christofk said, adding that the county has looked at gasification and direct combustion options. In 2007, the county received a $500,000 federal grant for planning and in 2008 received a $1.5 million grant for construction. Both require a 50-50 match, Christofk said. An application for $1 million has been submitted, also. If approved, construction could begin as early as 2012.

The plant would produce heat and electricity, Christofk said, and local utilities have expressed interest in using the electricity. The heat could be used for snow melt or for heating in buildings, he said. "My personal sense is using the biomass, verses burning it out in the open, is much better," he said.

Local conservation groups say they need more information before they can weigh in on the biomass plant project.

"We approach forest biomass very cautiously," said Terry Davis, conservation program coordinator for the local Sierra Club, which includes 24 counties in California. "We recognize there's a problem in the Sierra Nevada. We're dealing with about 100 years of fire suppression and that material needs to come out." The club studies biomass project proposals on a case-by-case basis and does not have enough information about the Placer County plant to endorse it or not, he said. "Sierra Club leaders in the Tahoe area are concerned because they don't have a handle on what will be fed into it," Davis said. "We recognize a wide variety of reasons for getting this stuff out but the devil is in the details."

Support from the club depends on whether certain controls are put in place for a particular project, such as habitat safeguards and making sure the forest ecosystem is not impaired. Another important factor is making sure the plant is small and local enough to make its operations sustainable for the forest, or having a sunset closing date for the plant, he said. "We want to make sure that once the biomass plant uses up that material, that they do not start to take out material that should not be removed," Davis said, adding that with some more communication, the county and Sierra Club can most likely come to an agreement. "I think they'd like to have our support," he said.