Power with a Purpose

Novo BioPower CEO Brad Worsley describes the impact the family-owned biomass power plant has on the health of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests.
By Katie Schroeder | October 17, 2022

In Snowflake, Arizona, the state’s only biomass power plant is playing a key role in helping improve forest health by utilizing biomass thinnings from forest management initiatives. For the Worsley family, this business model isn’t just about a profit—it’s also personal. Brad Worsley, CEO and president of Novo BioPower, explains that the Worsley family has been directly impacted by poor forest health. “My family’s world was dramatically impacted by a catastrophic wildfire and the poor policies and gridlock that had happened between the environmental community and the forestry industry,” Worsley says. “But we have found a way to move forward.” 

Plant History
In 2002, the Rodeo-Chinski fire in burned down the ponderosa pine forest that surrounded the legacy cabin built by Worsley’s parents. “That fire came through and burned right up to and all around our property—a handful of small structures on our property were burned, and we had to evacuate and come back in,” Worsley says. “As the residual impact of that fire was felt, we realized that the beautiful forest we had built our home in was now gone. The home was still there, but it was not the same place in our hearts and minds as it was when we built it in this dense, ponderosa pine forest ... and as we studied and learned, we realized it would not be the same for a thousand years—if it ever comes back to what it was.”

After the fire, fueled by the sadness and frustration caused by the loss of the forest, Worsley’s father, Bob, was determined to find a way to solve the problem. As the Worsleys educated themselves on forest health, they learned that the forest had changed significantly since settlement. One reason for that was the “Smokey Bear effect”—an early U.S. Forest Service “no fires” policy that inevitably led to forests traditionally having 10 to 15 trees per acre as a healthy stand, to 500 to 1,000 trees per acre. “Although to our eyes, especially as people who had traveled and seen dense East Coast forest, it was very attractive, but it was also very unhealthy and prone to wildfire and beetle [damage],” Worsley says.

While his father was exploring ways to solve this problem, the Arizona Corporation Commission began mandating a specific amount of renewable energy in the state’s energy production portfolio, Worsley explains. “There was this window—this door—the stars aligned where a biomass power plant could, at the time, provide very affordable and also renewable base load electricity,” he says.

Arizona Public Services and Salt River Project signed contracts with Bob Worsley to build a biomass power plant to deal with reforestation challenges, Worsley explains. The facility began running in 2008. However, the market crash led to the facility changing hands as the bank sold the facility. The group that bought it from the bank sold it back to Bob Worsley in 2013 for close to  what they had initially bought it for, bringing Worsley on as CEO and president of the renamed company, Novo BioPower. Bob Worsley remains a majority owner of the company, though he is not involved in running the plant day-to-day.

“In the meantime, the facility that [Novo] was colocated next to, a paper mill, went bankrupt in 2012, so it was an opportunity to come in and buy the facility and some of the conjoined assets, and kind of make a singular facility that has a sole purpose of generating power from the thinning of our federal forests.”

Novo BioPower signed documents extending its power purchase agreement with Arizona Public Services through December 2033. An extension was also approved by Salt River Project executive management and was signed in October.

“We have taken this facility from twice-defunct ownership to profitable, high-output facility that has mostly had year-over-year steady growth,” Worsley says.

Operational Considerations
Novo BioPower faces three challenges in day-to-day operations: fuel source homogeneity, feedstock sourcing and insurance for the power plant. Lack of homogeneity in the fuel source is the biggest of these challenges, Worsley explains. “At a biomass facility, unless you can put a lot of money into making that wood look and act like rock, torrefy it, harden it, pelletize and then grind it, you are forced to deal with different sizing, different Btu, moisture and ash content, and then blend all of it together while trying not to increase cost,” he says.

The other aspect that is a challenge for a biomass plant is sourcing feedstock. Since they need to go on public and private land to obtain biomass to process, it requires dealing with the federal government red tape, environmentalists and local residents. “You have to go out and work on public and private land, mostly public, where people have opinions and they recreate … we could be doing a thinning project right next to where people are camping and hunting,” Worsley says.
Finding insurance is also difficult since biomass power facilities have a history of being difficult to run and maintain since they typically operate within low margins.

For Worsley, managing these challenges are worth it, if it means helping solve generational issues of fire and drought. In order to do this, the plant must stay in business. “Profitability is the mechanism that allows us to carry out our purpose,” Worsley says. And the 27-MW Novo BioPower plant is profitable, maintaining a “true uptime in the low 90%, 93%,” running 340-plus days each year for the past four years.

Plant Functionality
Novo BioPower’s biomass feedstock is made up of ground hog fuel or precommercial timber, including tree limbs, bark, pine needles and tree tops. “We take the residues off of those mills, the residue out of that forest, and then all the precommercial timber, the five-inch, four-inch and three-inch that has to be cut as part of the deal to be able to take the merchantable wood off, that all comes in, in the hog fuel,” Worsley says. The plant aims to keep 30 days’ worth of fuel on hand, stored in the fuel yard.

The plant uses a Babcock & Wilcox bubbling fluidized bed boiler to burn the biomass, create steam and produce power. Worsley explains that the boiler uses a five-foot bed of sand with a higher melting point. The ground wood is injected over the top of the bed through air knives, allowing the feedstock to be burned for its duration. The sand will agitate the ash to make sure that any remaining wood is also burned. Noncombustible material such as rocks, metal or sand will flow through the bed as it’s agitated by the air and comes out the bottom. The ash flies over through the boiler, into the bag house and is collected there, Worsley says. “At that point it’s just like almost any other power plant that heat is transferred into the tube walls, which are full of water that turns into high pressure steam shot into a GE turbine generator, and we make power.”

Sustaining the Forest
Due to drought, the pine line in Arizona is shifting, Worsley explains. Previous policies designed to prevent fire has led to overgrowth of ponderosa pine forests, and the trees have become even drier in the midst of extreme drought conditions. This combination has made it impossible for fire to play its role in Arizona forests, Worsley explains, as they are too intense, spread quickly and kill healthy trees. “It’s impossible to return fire to this forest today without it being catastrophic,” he says. “There are too many ladder fuels, there’s too much fuel load on the ground, and the trees are too unhealthy.” Novo BioPower’s goal is to help return the forests to presettlement conditions, when low-intensity fires could play their rightful role and clean out the forest, allowing the trees to survive.

Novo BioPower utilizes the “lowest end portion” of the trees throughout every acre of harvested forest. Worsley explains that this approach allows the plant to make a sustainable forest industry work.

“We’re not mining sequestered carbon, we’re using active carbon, but our efforts go beyond that, in my opinion,” he says. “It goes beyond just being carbon neutral. I call it carbon neutral-plus, because we are in fact … spending each and every day preserving the largest carbon sink in the state of Arizona—the 4 million-acre ponderosa pine forest. We protect that and remove the low-grade, high-hazard fuels, retaining this large, beautiful forest at its capacity to pull CO2 out of the air and release oxygen.”

The purpose of maintaining this forest as a carbon sink, recreational area and watershed is what gives Worsley purpose in running Novo BioPower. “There are a lot easier businesses to be in than biomass. But  it was personal to us,” Worsley adds. “We experienced its impact, we felt the heat of those catastrophic wildfires and we saw what it did, so we wanted to do something about it. And we’re doing it, while making a profit.”

Author: Katie Schroeder
Staff Writer
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