We’re losing the war.

But we might win the next battle.

That’s the mixed message on the prospects for protecting a forest-saving, wildfire-reducing market for biomass in Arizona that emerged this week from a meeting of the Natural Resources Working Group.

Prospects have brightened for a deal with two power companies that would save the Novopower plant near Snowflake, President Brad Worsley reported to the group of local officials, environmentalists and industry representatives on Tuesday.

“We are in active negotiation with Salt River Project (SRP) and Arizona Public Service (APS) to secure (contract) extensions and those negotiations are positive. We fully expect that early in 2021 we will have some kind of definitive position.”

The Novopower plant burns slash and small trees from forest restoration projects in the White Mountains. The plant can generate 28 megawatts of power annually, enough to support the thinning of more than 15,000 acres annually.

Previous thinning projects are credited with saving Springerville and Alpine from the Wallow Fire and continued support for restoration projects is viewed as essential to protecting Payson, Pine and other communities from the next megafire. Most of the thinning projects completed statewide in the past decade have centered on the White Mountains, largely because the biomass burning plant makes restoration projects economical — including roughly 19,000 acres in the past year.

However, the Novopower plant only exists because the Arizona Corporation Commission nearly a decade ago required power companies to generate a certain amount of energy from renewable sources — including burning biomass, solar or wind. At the time, biomass was cheaper than solar or wind power. As a result, SRP and APS signed a long-term contract to buy the energy Novopower produces.

Since then, breakthroughs in large-scale solar and wind power generation have made those renewable sources cheaper than burning biomass. Burning biomass had the added benefit of reducing the risk wildfires will destroy towns like Show Low and the watersheds that support the Valley. However, those benefits aren’t factored into the costs of the electricity.

The Arizona Corporation Commission considered and rejected a separate biomass mandate. The original proposal would have mandated 60 to 90 megawatts, enough to support both Novopower and a new biomass plant, perhaps created by converting one unit of the coal-fired Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City. But that proposal would have boosted the average homeowner’s bill by about $1 a month.

Two ACC commissioners continued to battle for the biomass mandate. One did not run for re-election and the other — Republican Leah Marquez Patterson — was re-elected. However, voters also elected Republican James O’Connor, who has up until now opposed a biomass mandate. The third seat went to Democrat Anna Tovar, who hasn’t taken a clear position on biomass beyond her support for the use of more renewable energy sources. Even if she supported a mandate, a board majority would still be on record against requiring utilities to burn biomass.

So the war for a biomass market that would support 50,000 acres of thinning annually is not going well.

But the battle to save Novopower is progressing.

The expiration of the existing contracts threatens to shut down Novopower, the only existing market for the wood slash and biomass. Such wood slash constitutes half of the material generated by a thinning project. The current long-term contracts with APS and SRP expire in the next two years.

However, Worsley’s cautious statement at the Resource Group’s meeting suggests both of the giant power companies remain open to extending their existing contracts with Novopower, even if the electricity produced costs more than natural gas, solar or wind.

The news offers hope Novopower can survive and provide a market for the next round of contracts awarded as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. The Forest Service has been mulling contract bids for thinning projects in Rim Country and the White Mountains for more than a year and likely won’t award contracts until next spring.

The repeated delay in awarding those contracts has left Novopower and many timber companies in limbo.

“So we’ve been doing this dance for months,” said Worsley, while waiting for a clear signal from the Forest Service and from the two utility companies in the absence of action by the ACC.

“Anytime you need multiple groups to approve something,” said Worsley, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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