Biomass to the Rescue

By Bob Cleaves | October 29, 2012

This has been the worst year for wildfires on record. A Washington Post article recently chronicled the government’s losing battle to control fires amidst tightening purse strings and firefighting costs that can now top $1 billion per year. The story quoted a Nature Conservancy expert, who, questioning the strategy of saving money on prevention methods so that funds would be available for fighting fire, said, “They were telling people in May, ‘Be careful, don’t spend too much [on prevention].’ ”

Biomass is an obvious forest fire prevention resource that is not being fully utilized, with tighter budgets often cited as the reason. This is a shortsighted approach; channeling funds to clear forest debris for use as biomass fuel has a dramatically lower price tag, and is much better for the environment than putting out five-alarm fires once they’ve started.

In the past, I’ve used this column several times to make this point, and I know that many, if not most, Biomass Magazine readers are aware of the facts and agree with me on this. This time around, I’m going to tell you about a biomass facility that pitched in during a local wildfire emergency.
Over the summer, the Chips wildfire struck the Plumas National Forest in northern California. Over its six-week life, the fire—one of the largest ever experienced in California—consumed 75,000 acres of land and cost the state $60 million in control and cleanup efforts.

On Aug. 17, about halfway through its lifespan, the fire took down the PG&E Caribou Transmission Line, a critical power line servicing Susanville, Calif., and its 15,000 residents. This was a dangerous development for a number of reasons. Aside from the danger posed to residents by losing electricity during one of the hottest summers on record, Susanville served as an important outpost for crews fighting the Chips fire. Without hotel accommodations and staging grounds available in Susanville, firefighters would have to rethink their strategy, potentially losing valuable time and risking further spread of the fire and its resulting damage.

Luckily, the local biomass facility run by HL Power came to the rescue. For more than two weeks, the facility worked closely with the local Lassen Municipal Utility District to take on a large part of the electricity load to power the town. The plant’s 30 MW of electric generation capacity was ample support for the LMUD system, which requires approximately 25 MW. A coordinated effort was planned and executed to transfer the entire electric load onto the power lines coming directly from the plant, and this required careful coordination and work throughout the night by HL Power, LMUD and PG&E—a task made even more complicated by fire damage to a communications center. A lot of dedicated and experienced people had to work together to complete this process successfully. 

Throughout the wildfire, HL Power worked closely with local utility officials to ensure that the community could continue to operate as normally as possible. Reasonable conservation measures were requested of the customers, which helped to stabilize load and voltage fluctuations. HL Power provided about 22-23 MW during the peak of the day and about 11-12 MW at night while demand is lowest.

In the end, the efforts and preparedness of HL Power allowed the community and local businesses to continue to function normally during a very serious fire emergency. The power it provided helped sustain several thousand firefighters who converged on Susanville and surrounding communities to control several fires, in addition to the Chips fire. By Sept. 11, the fire was finally under control. 

It’s likely that appropriate forest fire prevention measures would have helped control the spread of the fire in the first place, and possibly would have benefited plants like HL Power by assisting with fuel collection. This story, however, shows how indispensable biomass has become in an area like Susanville. In the face of a potential disaster, HL Power stepped in and kept the lights on.

If any Biomass Magazine readers have similar stories about biomass contributing to a community, I’d love to hear them.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association
[email protected]