Fire Threat Turns Energy Asset

Cabin Creek Biomass Energy will reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire in Placer County while producing 2 MW power, heat and biochar.
By Anna Simet | June 26, 2014

A visit to the current Placer County website yields a powerful image of a forest fire overtaking a home, with this boldfaced banner: “Fire season is coming…are you ready?”

There, Internet users are offered a variety of steps to take to increase the chances of their homes surviving a wildfire. Though wildfire awareness and preparedness seem to improve every year, occurrences of devastating wildfires continue to rise, and predictions are pointing to 2014 as potentially being the worst wildfire season on record. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, between Jan. 1 and May 3 alone, CAL FIRE has responded to over 1,200 wildfires that have charred nearly 2,700 acres. In an average year during the same period, CAL FIRE typically responds to fewer than 600 wildfires.

As a response to increasing wildfire severity, hazardous forest fuels reduction activities are being advocated and pushed for more than ever, a mitigation method that not only helps reduce the spread of fires, but also poses numerous other benefits, including the potential production of renewable heat and power.  Placer County, in northeastern California is getting close to realizing that benefit, as it is in the process of rolling out a 2-MW combined-heat-and-power plant at Lake Tahoe’s Cabin Creek, which will be fueled entirely by wood generated as a result of hazardous forest fuel removal.

Brett Storey, Placer County biomass manager, has been orchestrating the project since its inception. He was hired in 2006 to find an economic use for the region’s biomass thinnings, something other than open burning, and serious project evaluations on the bioenergy plant were initiated in 2009. From the beginning, one important consideration was the optimal size of the facility. “The size was based on how much fuel we could sustain over the life of the project, which could be up to 40 years, and we also looked at the transmission capabilities of the current lines and the potential to increase that, as well as regulatory agency emission allowances,” Storey says. “That’s how we ended up with a 2-MW system.”

A study commissioned to determine how much fuel was available within a 30-mile radius of the proposed plant indicated over 100,000 bone-dry tons annually, roughly six times more than the facility would need. With such an abundance of fuel available, a much larger facility could be built, but the current transmission line could only handle up to 2.7 MW. “The cost and time it would take to go through the environmental process for the transmission line would make it unacceptable from an economic standpoint,” Storey says.

Forest waste will be ground and screened in the forest, hauled to the site by truck and then dried and sent through a Phoenix Energy gasification system. The cleaned up syngas will be sent through a GE Jenbacher engine to create power, and the resulting biochar—about 500 tons annually—will be sold under contract as a soil amendment or a means of water filtration.

In the future, Storey says heat produced on site may be purchased by three or four nearby, county-owned buildings. “They will be upgrading and have expressed interest in purchasing the waste heat off of this project, so, ultimately, in about five years we will be a full-service operator using everything we can squeeze out of this facility.”

He adds that the plant location is in a former landfill area, and no homes are around it. “Just natural forest all around,” he says, noting that the onsite storage area will be large, as material for six months will have to be stockpiled. “We’re not allowed to go into the forests in the winter to grind and haul, so we’ll be delivering six extra months material, in addition [to everyday fuel] to keep running 24/7 all year.

Low-Carbon Profile

The environmental footprint of the plant has been carefully considered throughout the development process, Storey adds, including an emissions analysis of forest thinnings piles openly burned in several areas, compared to what the potential emissions profile of the facility would be, taking into account everything from “the chainsaw hitting the tree to grinding and hauling of the trucks to our facility.”  The results, which were not actually based on gasification but old boiler technology, were still much more favorable than open burning, according to Storey. “We know that gasification reduces those emissions further, but we wanted to show a worst-case situation. In the worst case, if you put that forest wood through our facility instead of open burning, there’s an 88 to 90 percent emissions reduction…on the GHG side, it’s about an 18 percent reduction.”

Numerous project partners and supporters who have come together to help advance the project, Story says. Placer County is an equity partner, the leaseholder of the site and will be the fuel delivery operator. “The reason we want to do that is because the U.S. Forest Service is our fuel agreement partner, and what we were able to do is sign a master fuel stewardship agreement—a 10-year contract that allows us to work on national Forest Service land and remove the material.”

That’s being done on a cost-share basis, he adds. “They figured out what it costs them to open burn [the fuel], so they’ve added that cost to the agreement, making our cost low enough to make it economic for our developer, Tahoe Regional Power Co.”

In addition, the facility will take in fuel from a community fire district in the area, which currently has a need to dispose of the material. “They don’t know what to do with it, so they will want a contract with us as well,” Storey says. However, the majority of fuel—95 percent—will come from the Forest Service.

Phoenix Energy, the gasification technology provider, will be the eventual owner and operator of the project, and already has two operating small-scale biomass gasification plants in the state. In CEO Greg Stangl’s opinion, these systems are ideal for deployment in California. “I believe there is a great opportunity for small, community-scale biomass plants to produce clean, renewable energy for California, and our third plant shows the technology is gaining momentum,” he says. “The piling and burning forest biomass in the open is a complete waste of a resource and bad for air quality, but it is often the only economic option for local communities.”

Electricity from the $12 million project, which was partially funded with a $1.5 million U.S. DOE grant, will be purchased by Liberty Energy.

Cabin Creek Biomass Energy is slated for construction next summer, with an operational goal of early 2016. It’s a small, simple facility,” Storey adds, “but we believe it’ll be a trendsetter for forest regions throughout the U.S.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine