“We’re super excited and the prospects for biomass look much brighter,” Novo BioPower head Brad Worsley told a relieved group of loggers, mill owners and public officials eager to restore the forest and prevent runaway megafires from consuming forested communities.
Worsley said changes at the Arizona Corporation Commission and negotiations with the Salt River Project have given him new hope that his 27-megawatt power plant near Snowflake will survive.
Moreover, he said the plant hopes to play a key role in two crucial thinning projects — the effort to protect the 64,000-acre C.C. Cragin watershed and the 30,000-acre Black River Landscape Restoration Project.
The power plant burns the small trees and wood scrap that have little value, but make up about half of the material removed in the typical thinning project. The existence of the plant has played a key role in the ongoing thinning projects in the White Mountains, which have stalled elsewhere in the state.
But the state’s only biomass burning plant is threatened by the impending expiration of long-term contracts for electricity with Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project plus the refusal of the Arizona Corporation Commission to require utilities it regulates to buy power produced by burning biomass.
Worsley reported good news on both fronts to the Natural Resources Working Group, a coalition of elected officials, Forest Service officials and industry representatives seeking to tackle the enormous challenge of forest restoration.
For starters, Worsley said he’s in ongoing negotiations with SRP to finalize a long-term agreement to buy electricity from Novo BioPower, extending the current, soon-to-expire contract.
SRP provides both water and power to customers in the Valley, which means it has a vital stake in the health of the watersheds that feed the reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers. This includes both the Black River project in the area burned by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire and the C.C. Cragin project designed to protect the 15,000 acre-foot reservoir that supplies drinking water to both Payson and the Valley.
“I’m working with SRP now to ensure we do more work inside the SRP watershed. If it’s part of the next 10 years, we’ll be making sure we address its watershed issues — like C.C. Cragin when its ready to go. We can look to Black River as well to ensure we’re meeting our obligation to SRP.”
That poses some logistical problems with the cost of hauling the low-value biomass to the Novo BioPower Plant in Snowflake. The cost of hauling biomass more than 50 miles to reach the plant makes such a project challenging, which in turn makes the long-term contract to buy the resulting power essential. The nuts and bolts discussion that took place Tuesday at the Natural Resources Working Group’s monthly meeting illustrated the need for planning and coordination to keep both Novo BioPower and the network of small-wood mills in business.
“We’re working hard with the utilities to get things moving forward one way or the other,” said Worsley. “We have $300,000 in capital projects we need to pull the trigger on” to remain efficient and productive. Only a long-term power contract will give the plant enough of a future to make those investments.
Meanwhile, Worsley also reported good news from the Arizona Corporation Commission.
The commissioners have elected Leah Marquez Peterson as the chairman. The Tucson Republican is the leading advocate for a biomass mandate on the commission, so her election as chair has boosted prospects the commission will revisit its twice-rejected biomass mandate rule.
“We’re thrilled to death about the commission chairwoman at the ACC,” said Worsley. “I didn’t see that one coming, but I can see why it happened. She’s talking about meeting with the commissioners about biomass and we’re super-excited about that. It’s a major win.”
Advocates hope that Peterson can talk her fellow commissioners into requiring APS and other utilities to annually purchase 60 to 90 megawatts of electricity produced by burning biomass. That would support at least $50,000 worth of thinning projects annually. The power from biomass plants costs more than the same power from wind, solar or natural gas. However, it releases much less carbon into the atmosphere than an uncontrolled wildfire and protects both watersheds and forested communities by sustaining restoration projects. Experts say an earlier generation of thinning projects likely saved both Springerville and Alpine from the Wallow Fire.
In the meantime, Novo BioPower has been operating at peak capacity as logging and thinning projects have continued through a winter with almost no snow.
The plant has been running about 8,000 hours annually, roughly 344 days last year. That’s about two weeks of additional operation compared to a few years ago — enough to boost the plant’s output from 24 megawatts to about 27 megawatts.
“Today, it is running great — but in the next six months if we don’t pull the trigger (on infrastructure investments) we’ll start to see problems,” said Worsley to the listening loggers and mill operators. That whole network depends critically the ability of Novo BioPower to make their projects viable by creating a market for the biomass.
“And that’s why I’ve been jumping up and down and screaming about the extension” of the power contracts, said Worsley wryly.