Community split on biomass plant opening in Greenville

During a special townhall meeting hosted by the Indian Valley Community Services District on March 25, Jonathan Kusel, Sierra Institute for Community and Environment’s executive director, discusses the potential benefits of developing a small-scale combined heat and power bio-energy facility in Greenville. Photo by Samantha P. Hawthorne
Samantha P. Hawthorne

  Indian Valley residents who spoke out during the March 26 townhall meeting were split in their opinion, six to six, regarding the Indian Valley Community Services District’s proposal to lease its vacant, 5-acre parcel in Greenville for the development of a 3-megawatt biomass power plant.

  The special board meeting was held so that community members could provide input on whether or not they think the plant would be a viable option for the small town of Greenville.

  After months of research, the services district put together a thick packet of information for the public, which included potential project specs from three different developers.

  In a “request for information” the district outlined its objectives, specifying that in developing a forest bio-energy facility on the Greenville mill site, the district hopes to:

  —Create jobs for local residents.

  —Support local subsidiary businesses.

  —Utilize woody biomass material (on both private and public land) for purposes of fire safety and/or ecological restoration.

  —Have minimal noise and odor impacts.

  —Provide opportunities for additional businesses that can utilize potential heat from the power plant.

  The district hopes this will result in “a reliable income stream” to support itself.

  Board director Mike Yost explained that the district does not plan to be the investor in this project, but rather, would be leasing out its land to someone who wished to pursue this investment opportunity.

  After reminding the public of the financial turmoil the district has faced in past years, Yost said by leasing its land, the district would gain a monthly revenue source that could possibly help avoid future rate increases.

  “When this opportunity came up we thought, here is a property we own that is not being used, could give a return to the district and provide local employment,” said Yost. He estimated a possible three to five jobs in the plant and additional jobs for people working in the forest to collect biomass.

  The idea of building such a facility originated from a discussion board members had with representatives from Sierra Institute for Community and Environment.

  The institute was awarded one of 10 highly competitive grants available from the California Energy Commission. Between the three funding categories available through the “Community Scale Renewable Energy Development, Deployment and Integration” grant, the institute requested, and was approved for, $300,000 in category B to “formulate community-specific renewable energy development plans, including the tools and methodologies necessary to do so.”

  The grant was established to help meet the goals of Senate Bill 1122, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to direct electrical corporations “to collectively procure at least 250 megawatts of cumulative rated generating capacity from developers of bio-energy projects that commence operation on or after June 1, 2013.”

  Jonathan Kusel, Sierra Institute director, said that developers who take advantage of this investment opportunity could earn 14 to 16 cents per megawatt of energy sold to electrical companies.

  He said that in order to qualify for benefits under this bill, an individual bio-energy plant cannot exceed an effective capacity of 3 megawatts. For comparison purposes, this is four times smaller than the Collins Pine Co. sawmill in Chester, which has a 12-megawatt effective capacity.

  Yost said the idea behind SB 1122 is to use naturally accruing resources such as chips, branches and other woody materials found in the forest (woody biomass) to generate electricity. He said that a plant as small as 3 megawatts will not make a huge dent in the woody biomass that is abundant in the surrounding forests but would be a step in decreasing the rapid spread of wildfires.

  According to a proposal from PHG Energy, a 3-megawatt plant could consume approximately 137 tons of forest residual per day. The company said this material will be gasified to “produce a clean, combustible gas known as producer gas.”

  As a specialist in renewable energy project management, Tad Mason, chief executive officer for TSS Consultants, estimated approximately 24,000 tons of biomass would be burned per year, equating to about 1,000 truckloads.

  Several community members voiced their dismay over the amount of truckloads this would require and the disturbance it could cause to Greenville residents.

  Another concern posed was whether there is enough woody biomass to keep a facility of this type open. One person in attendance asked if trees will start being cut down if the material runs low, or if residents will be made to deliver their private property biomass to the plant rather than burn it up themselves. He said, “As a private property owner, what kind of guarantee do you have if supplies ran short?”

  Yost gave no guarantee and reminded the public that the district would only be leasing its land; it would not be running the plant. He continued by assuring them that Mason estimated that a 3-megawatt plant could be fueled on local private biomass sales alone.

  One man spoke up saying that he thought the whole idea was just a ploy to make money for the district’s personal activities. Director Jane Braxton Little responded, saying, “The reason we started looking at this in the first place is because we do not want to turn out an opportunity if it is a viable opportunity. We have some time put into this but that is it; we are all trying to get answers just as you are.”

  “What will this do to air quality?” asked one woman. “Everything we do has negative and positive effects. We need to evaluate the negatives and the positives. We are relying on you guys to really analyze everything.”

  Board chairman Blake Shelters assured her, “Believe me, it is part of our task to do that, even if we have to hire someone else to help us.”

  Kusel gave an example to help explain the benefits of using the woody biomass compared with leaving it in the forest and letting it burn naturally.

  He said the air pollution caused by the Moonlight Fire is equal to the amount caused by 750,000 cars on the road in one year. “We make these tradeoffs all the time and that is part of the calculus in terms of benefits. The best we can do is rely on air quality science and regulators. We are truly in an exploratory phase … that is why we are holding this meeting.”

  When biomass burns in the forest naturally there is a 20 percent increase in methane gas that enters the air compared to when it is burned artificially, he added.

  Other issues raised were how this might affect burn days, whether 5 acres is adequate space for building the plant and storing material, and the level of emissions the plant will produce.

  Putting aside the potential positive and negative effects, Yost said that the land would have to be rezoned for industrial use if the community were in favor of going forward. He said before this can be done, however, the county will have to approve the new general plan.

  Yost said the fact that the district cannot afford a project manager also poses a problem.

  Included among the long list of steps required to go forward with the project are permitting — which will need to be secured by the investor — and the completion of a California Environmental Quality Act review, which according to its website is “a system of checks and balances for land-use development and management decisions in California.”

  “I am an advocate for whatever we do that actually contributes to a better outcome. We need to look at this and ask, ‘Does it make sense? Is it working towards reducing our carbon footprint?’” said Kusel.

  “I do not think the question is, ‘Is it going to solve all our problems?’ The question is, ‘Is it viable; can it do something for the community?’” spoke out one community member.

  While listening to public concerns, Braxton Little compiled a list of positives verse negatives. She said the negative marks notated were: number of truckloads into the town, air emissions, noise, unsightly entrance to town, possibility of running out of biomass and cutting down trees, water quality from superheating the water and thermal curtain issue.

  The positives included: creating local jobs, reducing biomass, income from the land lease to the district, being able to produce power locally and reduce of catastrophic wildfires due to reduction of biomass.

  No decisions were made during this meeting and board members suspect there will be plenty more public meetings to discuss the viability of developing a biomass plant.

  “It is an ongoing education for us and we really are counting on all of you to keep feeding us your questions, answers and opinions,” said Braxton Little.

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