Nevada County 3 MW biomass gasification project found feasible

By Katie Fletcher | December 05, 2014

The Nevada County Biomass Task Force and the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County Grass Valley, California, published a biomass feasibility assessment this December, based on a study conducted over the past year for the potential of a 3 MW biomass energy facility. The feasibility study was conducted by Sacramento-based TSS Consultants to provide a detailed analysis of possible facility locations, among other key components to the project. The study found a biomass gasification project in western, rural Nevada County feasible with the correct combination of factors.

The assessment determines this combination; the amount of biomass that is available in the area on a sustainable basis, the type of biomass technology that is best suited to utilize the type and amount of biomass available, the most feasible sites for locating the recommended technology, and overall economics of operating a local facility. These findings were shared during meetings held Tuesday for the community. Foresters and logging companies were amongst those in attendance. “Generally the feeling was very positive,” said Joanne Drummond, executive director of the Fire Safe Council Nevada County.

Drummond said some concerns were expressed such as truck traffic and others from potential neighbors to the proposed facility. A logging company voiced concern in terms of the equipment they would need. “We would need biomass trailers with a walking bed to drop the chips, which they don’t currently have,” Drummond said. “Also under California AB32, all larger vehicles have to meet more stringent air quality requirements, and so they’ve had to go through their fleet and get new trucks or retrofit them as possible to meet the air emission standard.”

Still dealing with new air emission standard compliance, purchasing new equipment was a concern for the company. However, the Fire Safe Council and biomass task force are working to obtain funding to offset some of the project’s estimated $16 million cost. The council has received grant funding from the National Forest Foundation, the USDA National Forest Service, Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The council estimates they will be able to obtain around $2 million in grant funding for the developer, providing a nice down-payment in community effort and buy-in, said Drummond. A new funding opportunity is being pursued through the USFS Wood Innovation program. “We’re pulling together a team to draft a grant application at the end of January,” Drummond said. “For the next step, looking at a conditional use permit and the engineering, so we’re still trying to plug forward.”

Since the feasibility study showed viability, Drummond is optimistic. She said it really wouldn’t be possible without the primary revenue stream for the project SB 1122, which is the feed-in tariffs for the forest-source biomass. In order to obtain SB 1122 eligibility, projects must show that 80 percent of the feedstock is from forest-based biomass.

Besides forest-based biomass, feedstock from urban and agricultural areas will be sourced. Forest-sourced biomass in the study includes timber harvest residuals generated as a byproduct of forest management activities, and excess forest biomass material generated as a byproduct of fuels treatment and plantation thinning activities. Urban-sourced wood waste consists of clean construction, demolition wood waste and green waste from residential tree trimming and brush removal. The last material is commercial agricultural operations byproduct. The optimized feedstock blend is 80 percent forest at 19,200 bone-dry-ton (BDT) per year, 4 percent urban at 1,000 BDT per year, and 16 percent agricultural at 3,800 BDT per year, totaling 24,000 BDT. The feedstock estimated starting cost in 2017 is $53.10 per BDT based on the weighted average of feedstock availability.

Seasonal availability of forest feedstock brings about the need for the infrastructure onsite to support some volume of feedstock stockpiled during the winter months when access to forest operations is minimal.

Nineteen sites across western Nevada County were evaluated. Sites were identified based on input from the Task Force, recommendations from the project’s two community meetings and by TSS. The sites weighed factors such as available space, biological resources, cultural resources, heating and cooling load, interconnection requirements, land-use zoning, proximity to sensitive receptors, road infrastructure, site infrastructure and environmental cleanup status and water supply and wastewater discharge. The number one site range scoring 76.7 out of 100 was La Barr Road Rare Earth site followed closely by the Centennial Road Site at 73.3.

The feasibility assessment identified that a gasification-to-internal-combustion-engine approach would be preferred for the technology to take in the blended feedstock. A power purchase agreement would be made with Pacific Gas and Electric Company for the sale of generated electricity as mandated through the renewable portfolio of California and the feed-in tariff for SB 1122.

Due to all the stars that must align to make a biomass project feasible in California, the volunteer-based task force and Fire Safe Council have been meeting for over five years on this possibility, and another three to five years is expected. It is part of the council’s stated mission in their strategic plan to pursue biomass utilization opportunities. “Because we create it as a byproduct of meeting our mission, we hoped that we would be able to find a use for it,” Drummond said. “We think our stars will align, but it is a very arduous process; working through all of the logistics, and trying to site it somewhere where we have receptive neighbors.”

Although the process has been long, forecasted benefits include around 18 jobs, catastrophic wildfire reduction, better air quality, a healthier forest area and reducing the amount of open burning among others.

TSS recommends the task force now focus on selecting a target site, identifying a technology developer, commencing with land use permitting, continuing public outreach, identifying synergies with local enterprises and obtaining grant funding, according to the Biomass Feasibility Assessment.