Forest thinning program aims to reduce wildfires

Forest thinning program aims to reduce wildfires

8 November 2006

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USA — Crews will soon begin thinning one of the last large stands of timber untouched by wildfire along the eastern front of the Sierra.

The North Washoe Project will treat a swath of overgrown forest in the mountains west of Washoe Lake to protect the forest from major fires while restoring health to an ailing ecosystem.

But Stan Raddon, owner of a plant that recycles wood waste in Carson City, is disappointed much of the woody material pulled from the forest apparently won’t help fuel a soon-to-be operating power plant at a capital city prison. That facility is still substantially lacking a guaranteed source of wood fuel needed for it to operate.

Both developments come as increasing attention is paid to the opportunities offered and challenges facing successful use of “biomass,” or the production of energy from the burning of vegetation and wood waste.

When it comes to renewable energy, attention is usually focused on solar, wind and geothermal, said Elwood Miller of the Nevada Renewable Energy Task Force.

“Biomass always seems to be included, if it’s included at all, as an afterthought or a footnote,” Miller said. “It is not about pitting one source of renewable energy against another, it is about recognizing the benefits of each.”

Speaking at a recent Reno conference on biomass, Miller stressed the importance of pursuing it as a legitimate source of renewable energy. Doing so would improve forest health and reduce fires in western forests and rangeland, Miller and others said.

“The need has never been clearer or more pressing than it is today,” Miller said.

This month, crews from Redding, Calif.-based Sierra Pacific Industries are expected to begin road construction and some tree removal for the North Washoe Project, said Dave Loomis, a planner with the U.S. Forest Service’s Carson Ranger District.

Too many trees

The area to be thinned is one of the last along the east Sierra from Peavine Peak south to Topaz Lake that has not been hit by a major wildfire in recent years, Loomis said. The forest is packed with too many trees of the same age growing too close together, a situation that leaves it vulnerable to drought, insect attack, and catastrophic fire.

“It’s one of the few areas where we have a large forest remaining,” Loomis said.

Sierra Pacific Industries will remove 2.7 million board-feet of small but marketable timber from selected spots from the 5,600-acre area.

The idea is to create islands of thinned forest that would slow a fire’s spread.

“These are like speed bumps,” Loomis said. “When a fire comes along, these are areas where the fire will slow down, drop to the ground and give firefighters a chance to put the fire out.”

Sierra Pacific is required under its Forest Service contract to remove about 2,000 tons of limbs, woody debris and other biomass that could be used for energy production, Loomis said.

Sierra Pacific plans to truck the biomass material to a cogeneration plant it operates at an otherwise shut down lumber mill in Loyalton, Calif. Commercial logs will be hauled to mills the company operates in Quincy and Camino, Calif.

Power plant needs wood

If the biomass is indeed hauled to Loyalton, it would be unfortunate, said Raddon, owner of Carson City Renewable Resources. Raddon, who has operated a facility to treat biomass material at the Carson City landfill since 2004, had hoped to tap into the stream of wood waste being pulled out of the mountains.

“I don’t know what to do to get it,” Raddon said. “I’ve kind of exhausted my ideas.”

Raddon has a contract to deliver wood to a new, $6.5 million chip-fired power plant at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility. The facility’s boiler is due to be operating this winter and will produce 1 megawatt of electricity, enough power and heat for the 1,200-inmate prison, with excess power to be sold for the power grid.

Raddon said his contract requires him to provide 56 tons of wood chips per day for the prison plant. Currently, he’s able to produce about 24 tons, almost all of it coming from old pallets and wood waste provided by the construction industry.

“I need a lot more. I need 56 tons per day,” Raddon said. “I’m just really running hard to find enough material.”

Dan Tomascheski of Sierra Pacific Industries said his company needs wood waste for its Loyalton cogeneration plant but would consider selling it to the Carson City operation.

“The price is the deal,” Tomascheski said. “Truthfully, we have an open mind.”

Problem common

Experts said one of the biggest issues facing the biomass industry is locking in a steady, long-term source of wood waste to justify capital expenditures.

“It’s very important when we put these projects in that we have a locked-in, fairly long-term fuel supply,” said Jason Perock, who works in a biomass program with the Nevada Division of Forestry. Perock’s Fuels for Schools program provided for a state-of-the-art biomass boiler at an Ely elementary school that is expected to result in annual power savings of up to $75,000 per year, Perock said.

Similar projects could work at other areas but a long-term guarantee of fuel supplies remains a challenge, Perock said.

“We have industry that wants to invest in the state of Nevada but they will not invest without a long-term supply guarantee,” Perock said.

Uncertainty over a guaranteed fuel source for the Carson prison plant already played a role in a decision by investors to scale back on the size of the facility, said Jay Johnson of NORESCO, a Massachusetts-based energy services company involved in the project. The plant was originally designed to produce twice as much power as it will now, Johnson said.

Similar concerns could keep investors from building biomass plants at hospitals, schools, colleges and similar places across the country, Johnson told federal land managers at last week’s biomass conference.

“We’re still in our infancy,” Johnson said. “We want your fuel. We need that longer commitment if we’re going to invest.”

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