If District One Supervisor Ron Christensen has his way, Gila County's Buckhead Mesa Landfill will soon get a much needed breather.
Christensen recently convened a meeting of community leaders out of which he hopes will come a working body that will develop biomass energy plants and other projects in northern Gila County. Such a facility, the county supervisor said, could reduce dumping at the landfill by 50 percent.
"If we don't do something, Buckhead Mesa will be filled up by 2020," Christensen said. "Landfills are very expensive to build about $4 to $5 million."
The Russell Gulch Landfill that serves southern Gila County has an even shorter lifespan, Christensen said. At the current rate of dumping, it will be full by 2008.
To complicate the problem, Christensen said the U.S. Forest Service has indicated it will no longer allow landfills on its property. That leaves the county little choice but to look into placing any new landfills on Indian reservation land.
Dr. Martin Moore, Director of the Organization of Eastern Counties, addressed the gathering at the Gila County Maintenance Yard and explained the basic science and economics behind the concept.
"Biomass," Moore said, "is basically everything from plant materials, including leaves, bark, stems, twigs and sticks, plus products that are made from plant materials, such as papers and other types of organic wastes that come off plants.
"To create biomass energy, you take that material and turn it into a usable form through chipping, shredding, compressing, pellet making whatever it may be. The one we are here to talk about today is biomass energy for electricity."
While biomass electric plants are more expensive to operate than coal-powered plants 6 to 6.75 cents per kilowatt versus 2 to 3 cents biomass energy is attractive for other reasons.
"President Bush has been emphasizing renewable energy as part of his national energy policy," he said. "And the Arizona Corporation Commission has come in with a protocol saying every electric company must produce a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources."
But most important, Moore said, is the fact that Gila County has a lot of plant materials. Biomass power plants usually generate electricity by burning fuels such as natural gas, sawdust, forest thinnings, urban wood wastes like small diameter timber and grass clippings, and sewage sludge.
It takes 20 to 80 tons of biomass material per day to produce a megawatt of electricity. While that sounds like a lot, Gila County could probably operate a three-megawatt plant without much trouble, Moore said.
"In Graham County, they estimate that the Coronado National Forest has 20 to 27 tons of dead fuel per acre," he said.
One community that is leading in biomass energy is Safford.
"They have a lot of cotton wastes there, and they can easily produce enough in one year to run a three-megawatt plant for three years," Moore said.
The amount of electricity produced at such a plant is miniscule compared to the large plants operated by Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project.
"To put it in perspective, Salt River Project's coal generating plant in St. Johns produces about 1000 megawatts of electricity," Moore said.
But each megawatt provides enough electricity for approximately 770 homes. And with the price of electricity varying by time of use, small biomass plants can be economically viable. That's what has Christensen excited.
"The electricity goes into the grid system at peak times," he said.
Such a facility, he believes, would probably be operated by a private company, and it would be required to meet Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for emissions.
"I think we can interest a company that does these kinds of things to run it on a for-profit basis," he said.
If the area qualifies, such an operation could be partly subsidized by the federal government.
To that end, Christensen is planning a trip to Washington, D.C. in February to talk to government officials.
The stakes are high. Not only does Gila County have a looming landfill problem, but excess forest undergrowth has created the continuing threat of a catastrophic fire and endangered water supplies. A recently completed feasibility study of a biomass power plant in Angel Fire, N.M. addressed these issues:
"Past management practices of forest fire suppression has resulted in an increase in standing fuel and a decline in overall forest and watershed health," the study said. "This is characterized by an increase in the amount of diseased timber, and an increase in water loss from this affected region."
Christensen emphasized the impact of undergrowth on water supplies.
"Up to 40 tons of debris per acre impacts production on the watershed that feeds our streams," he said. "Pine Creek used to run up to the first of July. That isn't happening. Roosevelt Lake is way down. Things that are growing out there are causing problems, and we need to move forward."
Besides its primary goal of developing biomass energy projects, Christensen hopes the working group he has formed will also educate the public.
"People need to be made aware of the opportunity biomass energy offers," he said.