No promises.

But we’ll think about it.

Really, really think about it.

That’s the gist of the position on burning biomass taken by three Democrats running for seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission during a stakeholders meeting for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

After the meeting in response to inquiries from the Roundup, former state lawmaker and ACC commissioner Bill Mundell polled Shea Stanfield and Anna Tovar on whether they would support a rule requiring power companies to buy power produced by burning biomass, which remains the key to forest restoration efforts.

The statement by the candidates said, “Biomass is considered a renewable energy source under the Renewable Energy Standard Tariff (REST) Rules. When we are elected to the Arizona Corporation Commission our primary focus will be for the health, safety, and welfare of all Arizona families. Therefore, we will do our due diligence when considering any renewable energy options that come before the commission, this includes the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). Our guiding principle will be, how the project best protects and serves all Arizona communities involved.”

Moreover, Republican Lea Márquez Peterson at the stakeholders meeting forthrightly supported issuing a biomass mandate. Appointed to the commission by Gov. Doug Ducey, she’s running for election.

Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott said, “Commissioner Peterson was knowledgeable for sure. Although a couple others were interested in learning, there were not a lot of substantive questions and engagement.”

He made that statement after the stakeholders meeting but before the candidates issued the additional statement.

Babbott is one of the leading advocates for 4FRI, which has been pushing for nearly a decade to convince the Forest Service to thin millions of acres of overgrown forests in northern Arizona. He’s also running as an independent for the state senate seat that includes all of Rim Country and the White Mountains.

The two other Republicans running for the Arizona Corporation Commission have not ruled out voting for the biomass mandate. However, in interviews with the White Mountain Independent during the primary Eric Sloan and James O’Conner each expressed opposition for any ACC rule that would increase electrical rates — no matter what the other benefits ensued.

One study by Arizona Public Service suggested that converting a coal-fired power plant into a 60 or 90 megawatt biomass burning facility would cost the average APS customer between $1 and $5 a month, compared to generating the same amount of power through a solar or natural gas burning facility.

That estimate didn’t attempt to put a price on the other benefits of burning biomass to foster forest thinning projects. Those benefits include the multi-billion-dollar value of water that flows off the forested watersheds or the billions of dollars invested in infrastructure like dams and transmission lines. It also didn’t consider the cost of fighting the rising number of fires in the overgrown forests or the potential damage to forested communities. In California, a lethal wildfire started by a downed power line bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Lots of other issues have dominated the battle for control of the corporation commission, which regulates many small water companies as well as the million-customer Arizona Public Service. Rising electrical rates, the baffling complexity of the current APS rate structure, dark money political spending, a shift to solar power and other topics have gotten most of the attention.

But no issue matters more to northern Arizona than whether the election will prompt the corporation commission to reconsider its rejection last year of a requirement that APS generate at least 90 megawatts of electricity annually by burning biomass.

The biomass mandate failed on a 3-2 vote. Peterson favors the mandate and so did Republican Boyd Dunn. However, Dunn didn’t gather enough valid signatures to make it onto the ballot. So if Peterson gets elected, at least two other winning candidates would have to vote for the mandate to reverse the current policy.

The two incumbent ACC commissioners not on the ballot — Republican Bob Burns and Democrat Sandra Kennedy — both opposed the mandate. They both said APS ratepayers shouldn’t bear the cost of solving the biomass problem.

The three Democrats running — Mundell, Stanfield and Tovar — favor policies that increase the state’s reliance on renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. Technological advances have made both those sources of power cheaper than coal and competitive with natural gas.

Their joint statement to the Roundup suggests they would consider biomass a renewable energy source, since the trees and wood slash harvested to produce energy will regrow — removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process. Studies also show that burning biomass in a facility like NovoPower near Snowflake removes most of the harmful emissions. Pollution controls capture 98% of the soot that poses the greatest health danger as well as perhaps 90% of the heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. The plant then buries the ash and residue, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

“Lives depend on solving the biomass bottleneck,” said Babbott at the 4FRI stakeholders meeting — with Peterson, Stanfield, Tovar and Sloan participating digitally.

Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting pointed out that the 2018 Camp Fire in California cost some $17 billion and killed 85 people. So a single fire cost about 200 times as much as building a 90 megawatt biomass plant, which would make it possible to thin 50,000 acres annually for the next 30 years — dramatically reducing the chance of a megafire.

Peterson expressed her strong support for the biomass mandate and underscored the importance of 4FRI to the future of the entire state.

Stanfield said she’s open to the idea of the mandate, but needs to understand the issue better. She seemed more supportive after she learned a biomass plant removes heat-trapping gases compared to letting the wood decompose in the forest or burn in a wildfire.

Henry Provencio, a top 4FRI official for the Forest Service, explained that burning biomass and restoring the forest “absolutely helps mitigate climate change. You can’t have carbon sequestration if you don’t have trees to sequester carbon. We see significant growth of the remaining trees after restoration treatments, which translates into increased carbon sequestration.”

Sloan agreed that reducing megafires represents a health and safety issue, but made no commitment to support a mandate. He has previously said he would not support any requirement that would increase electrical rates.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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(1) comment

Mike White

"Supporting biomass" is a euphemism for forcing the power companies to spend their money on building processing plants. That cost will, of course, be passed down to rate payers. So let's not dodge around what is actually being advocated here.

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