Proposed California biomass CHP plant wins NFF contest

By National Forest Foundation | April 18, 2017

The National Forest Foundation (NFF) is pleased to announce the winner of the 2016/2017 Barrett Foundation Business Concept Challenge. This unique competition provides awards for the best entrepreneurial approaches that help to solve one or more of the challenges facing America’s 193-million-acre National Forest System.

This year's winner combines energy production, sustainable forestry and community development in innovative proposal receives $100,000 in prize money. The Sierra Institute for Community and Environment proposed capitalizing on California’s unique energy markets and its abundant source of wood biomass. The institute’s proposal calls for a 3-MW, combined-heat-and-power (CHP) energy facility powered by local, sustainably harvested wood, colocated with other wood-products businesses. The plant would be located in rural Plumas County, California, an area hit especially hard by downturns in the timber industry and with national forests making up two-thirds of the county, much of them fire-prone.  

Traditional thinking suggests that it’s not economically viable to build a small-scale CHP facility in the rural region where the institute is proposing to build this plant. Yet Plumas County, which has lost thousands of timber-related jobs since the 1990s, would benefit immensely from such a plant. Additionally, as a small nonprofit, the Institute would unlikely be unable to raise enough capital to finance a biomass plant of this type. 

To address these concerns and move the project forward, the team created a coalition of project sponsors and proposed a small-scale biomass plant colocated with other wood products industries like the first cross-laminated-timber (CLT) mill in California, a firewood production facility, a wood chip processing facility for use by local biomass boilers in the county, and even a greenhouse heated by the biomass energy plant. The CHP plant would sell renewable energy to California’s uniquely regulated energy market and would sell heat created by the biomass facility to the other business co-ocated on the campus. All the businesses would utilize locally and sustainably harvested wood from nearby National Forests, adding further value by reducing the forests’ risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and improving forest health. This model makes it economically viable for a nonprofit to build such a small energy plant in a rural community.

This project seeks to demonstrate that nonprofits can leverage market forces to create community-scale development projects that address forest health, create local jobs and produce valuable products in small, rural communities. The Institute believes the project will demonstrate how a facility utilizing local, sustainably harvested biomass can generate efficient renewable energy, and with coproduct development, be financially viable.

Jonathan Kusel, executive director of the Sierra Institute, stated, “We’re thrilled to be recognized for this work and the excellent work of our close partners on the project, and thrilled also because this award is reflective of the collective effort of the many rural communities across California we’re privileged to work with.” 

“This year’s prize winner promises to deliver the results we developed the Barrett Challenge to stimulate,” said Bill Possiel, president of the NFF. “By beginning from the ground up and envisioning an enterprise that combines multiple wood-products and utilizes heat and energy as additional value-added products, the Sierra Institute has developed an idea that can benefit both the local community and the National Forests that surround it.” 

The Sierra Institute will be recognized at an award ceremony April 19, in Washington, D.C.