The region has endured repeated major wildfires in the last 15 years, causing the evacuation or pre-evacuation of thousands of residents and burning well over 1 million acres of precious forest.

The large-scale thinning project, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, has failed to produce meaningful results. Fortunately, the private thinning bridge contracts have helped keep the once-thriving forest industry alive.

As the forest industry has evolved, two realities exist — much of the supply must come from harvesting small diameter trees, and that ample supply must be produced in a consistent manner.

The former makes biomass plants an integral part of the local industry equation.

Using forest material, or biomass, for power isn’t a new concept.

Western Renewable Energy opened the state’s first biomass plant in Eagar in 2004 — just two years after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned almost half a million acres and an estimated 1 billion ponderosa pines.

Marc Spitzer, then the chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, called the plant a “win-win-win-win” at its grand opening, referring to the benefits of the forest, the environment, affordable energy and the rural economy.

Around that same time, Arizona Sen. Bob Worsley saw the devastation of the fire when he stayed at his family’s 40-acre homestead outside of Heber.

“The home survived but … the forest around it is gone,” Worsley’s son Brad said. “We didn’t understand the realities of our forest ecosystems, but the fire forced us to learn about forest health issues.”

In 2005, Bob began building a biomass plant in Snowflake. Despite challenges with the Catalyst Paper Mill closing and ownership changes, the Worsleys continue to operate Novo BioPower. Brad, the company’s president, said 99 percent of its supply — small-diameter wood and pine, pinyon and juniper residue — comes from Arizona’s forests and watersheds.

Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project purchase power from the plant, which receives supply from Tri Star Logging, another local forest company.

Last week the Arizona Corporation Commission approved APS’s rate increase amid controversy involving Commissioner Bob Burns’ isolated request for disclosure of the company’s 2014 campaign contributions. The increase will generate $95 million annually for the company and cost the average residential customer $6 per month, according to reports.

The rate case included a demand for APS to research bioenergy in its portfolio. It will have 90 days to establish a three-tiered proposal on inclusion of biomass for the commission to review. This comes amid a continued decline in coal production, and in turn jobs, for local electric utilities. Three coal-fired plants have long been a cornerstone of the area’s economy, including Cholla Generating Station in Joseph City, which is partially owned by APS.

Any addition of bioenergy would likely have positive implications for our economy and sustainability of our forest industry, in addition to the health of our forests.

Thirteen years after the ACC chairman lauded the induction of biomass into Arizona’s economy, the fact that the commission is concerned about our forests and the industry they support is good news for the Arizona’s high country.

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