An agreement that will keep Arizona’s only biomass burning power plant alive could also save forested communities like Payson and Show Low from the growing plague of wildfires.
Salt River Project this week announced it has signed an 11-year agreement with Novo BioPower to buy electricity generated by burning the biomass wood scrap from forest thinning projects.
Arizona Public Service signed a similar contract with Novo BioPower a month ago, said President and CEO Brad Worsley. As a result, the Snowflake plant can continue to operate until at least 2033.
The agreement will provide a market for the millions of tons of saplings, brush and wood scraps generated by thinning projects in northeastern Arizona. The lack of a market for biomass has proved the single biggest problem for loggers bidding on forest thinning projects.
It doesn’t solve the large problem of jump-starting massive thinning efforts like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative — which once hoped to thin at least 50,000 acres annually as it worked its way through about 4 million acres of dangerously overgrown forests. The Novo BioPower plant can burn enough biomass to support the thinning of about 15,000 acres annually.
However, the SRP agreement ensures the Snowflake biomass burning power plant can take the biomass from forest thinning projects on the East Clear Creek watershed and White Mountain Apache lands. SRP has agreed to buy enough power from the plant to support 80,000 acres worth of thinning projects over the next decade — while generating renewable power for more than 3,000 SRP customers.
The watersheds involved supply crucial SRP reservoirs — including the watershed of the C.C. Cragin and Roosevelt Lake. C.C. Cragin alone provides about 12,000 acre-feet of water a year to SRP and 3,000 acre-feet to Payson.
The contracts will prevent Novo BioPower from going out of business for lack of the kind of long-term contracts necessary to keep the plant going.
Numerous studies show that forest thinning projects that reduce densities from about 1,000 trees per acre to about 100 trees per acre remain the only way to reduce the odds a megafire will eventually swallow up forested communities like Payson and Show Low.
“Each year, hundreds of thousands of acres of forested lands across Arizona remain at high risk of catastrophic wildfire. To decrease the risks of forest wildfires, partnerships like this enable thinning projects to be conducted across the SRP watersheds, restoring forests and watersheds to more natural conditions and avoiding wildfires devastating impacts on the natural ecosystem, rural communities and the Valley’s water supply. These partnerships are critical for the success of forest thinning projects throughout the state.” said Elvy Barton, SRP forest health management principal. “In addition to forest health, this project will provide a reliable source of baseload renewable energy to SRP customers.”
Worsley has been lobbying for an extension of the contract for several years — ever since the Arizona Corporation Commission voted to drop a rule that required APS to generate a certain amount of power from renewable sources. At the time, that included biomass — which provided the contract that led to the construction of the Snowflake biomass burning plant.
Novo BioPower was in danger of closing when those contracts ran out, mostly because burning biomass is now a little more expensive than generating power from solar or wind energy. However, that price comparison doesn’t include the enormous benefit to watersheds and wildfire mitigation offered by burning biomass.
SRP continues to work with the U.S. Forest Service to support thinning projects on the watersheds that supply its Valley customers with water — including the 64,000-acre C.C. Cragin watershed.
The agreements will also bolster Navajo County’s economy, which has nurtured a shoestring timber and forest restoration industry.
“Fire and water are the largest natural resource issues that face Arizona in the coming century. We are grateful that SRP has agreed that the impact of our biomass facility on the forest, watershed, air, and economy is worth the continuation of our facility,” said Worsley. “Novo BioPower is committed to continuing this great work to combat the generational challenges that Arizonans face in our forests and watersheds.”
Novo BioPower currently supports directly and indirectly more than 650 jobs and 15 different forest product industries currently operating in Arizona. Research also shows that forest thinning projects support as many as 39.7 direct and indirect jobs per $1 million invested, which is in alignment with SRP’s investment with Novo BioPower.
Among SRP’s sustainability goals are a pledge to help thin 500,000 acres on the SRP watersheds by 2035 and an expanded pledge to add 2,025 MW of new utility-scale solar energy to SRP’s renewable portfolio by 2025.
“The Novo BioPower plant can support a forest product industry that is thinning 15,000 to 20,000 acres per year,” said Leslie Meyers, SRP chief water executive and associate general manager of water resources. “In order to make consequential progress in protecting Arizona’s forests and watersheds from another catastrophic wildfire, thinning must increase to 40,000 to 50,000 acres of forested land per year. New or expanded forest product industry is essential to reach the increased acreage goals.”
The contracts with SRP and APS remove a cloud that has been hovering over forest restoration efforts for years by assuring at least another decade of operation of the biomass burning plant.
The recent infrastructure and stimulus bills included millions to help jumpstart the long-stalled 4FRI project. The Forest Service has awarded contracts to a succession of logging companies, but each one has floundered on the cost of getting rid of the biomass.
However, the increased federal money hasn’t yet greatly accelerated the pace of forest thinning – partly due to the intractable biomass problem.
The Arizona Corporation Commission has repeatedly refused to issue a new rule requiring APS to burn more biomass. If the commission did issue such a rule – APS could include the cost of building additional biomass burning facilities in its rate structure. This would result in a small increase in electrical bills – but would protect billions in powerline infrastructure, protect watersheds in the face of the growing drought, reduce firefighting costs and reduce the odds of a town destroying wildfire.