Why can’t this California biomass plant get off the ground

Spring 2016 operations at Squaw Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Biomass plant proposed near ski area just can’t get off the ground

TRUCKEE, Calif. – A biomass plant to generate electricity by burning wood from forests and other woody debris would seem to make lots of sense. But one proposed for the area between Truckee and the Squaw Valley ski area has again been shelved.

The problem, explains Brett Storey, of Placer County’s planning services department, is simple economics. Biomass plants cost more, even if there is wood available, and the electricity comes in at a much higher price than other renewable sources, particularly wind and solar.

“It’s the right thing to do for the forest, but the problem is that nobody who purchases energy will pay the cost,” he explains. The cost of biomass electricity comes in at 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, but other sources of electricity cost just 3 cents a kilowatt-hour on the wholesale market.

Colorado has a biomass plant that began operations several years ago between Vail and Glenwood Springs. It depends upon an undisclosed price support from Holy Cross Energy and has also benefitted from grants. Even so, biomass plants have had a hard time getting going in Colorado. 

Placer County—which extends from the exurbs of Sacramento to the Nevada border, taking in the north shore of Lake Tahoe—has been pursuing a biomass plant for a number of years. The buyer of the electricity would be Liberty Utilities, which has a goal of dramatic reduction of its carbon content of electricity. In 2016, it eliminated coal from its mix and a year ago added a 50-megawatt solar farm in Nevada to its portfolio. It estimates that 36 percent of its power comes from renewable sources.

Storey says Placer County gave a little, and Liberty Utilities gave some, too, but they couldn’t make the numbers work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “You go to Scandinavian countries, and that’s all they have. But their energy costs are so high.”

The announcement from Placer County came the week before Squaw Valley and Liberty Utilities announced they intended to collaborate to deliver Squaw and its adjacent ski area, Alpine Meadows, with 100 percent renewable energy by as early as December 2018.

Renewables constitute just 25 percent of liberty Utilities’ current power mix, but the utility has added 150 megawatts of new solar-generating capacity. To meet the carve-out for Squaw, according to a press release, Liberty Utilities will push for other renewables, but particularly solar. South Lake Tahoe, also served by Liberty Utilities and located about 50 miles away, also has a goal of 100 percent renewables.

Liberty Utilities  and Squaw Valley also announced they will be working on creating a microgrid, using new battery storage technology to create a new way to store surplus energy. A press release said discussions have also involved Tesla.

Cap-and-trade bucks go to Sierra forestry work

AUBURN, Calif. – Last fall’s wildfires in California have renewed focus on the flammability of the forests in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, the state continues to bear down on strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the effort to reduce wildlife risk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions be dealt with in the same program? CalMatters reports that a small state agency called the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is getting $5 million to address forestry management around Lake Tahoe.

The money comes from the state’s cap-and-trade regime. Large polluters can continue to pollute in excess of emissions caps but are required to pay into funds. That money is then used to achieve carbon reductions in various ways.

By thinning forests, the remaining trees are expected to grow more readily, sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they do. But this process also stabilizes soils that hold water and reduces the risk of large wildfires.

CalMatters notes the smallness of this grant in comparison with the enormity of the work, though more funds may become available in the future.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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