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More Forest Communities Look to Trees To Make Electricity

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Biomass plants generate electricity by burning what otherwise would be waste: brushy undergrowth that's been cleared from forests. 

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that on California national forest lands alone, there are easily 500,000 acres per year that should be thinned to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.   

But to Tom Christoff of the Placer County Air Pollution Control District it's not only about reducing forest fires and producing electricity. He says by burning this waste in controlled emission plant, instead of in smoky piles in the forest: 

CHRISTOFF: "The benefits are huge, on the order of 95 percent reduction on particulate matter, 60 to 70 percent reduction on nitrous oxides,  and considerable percentrage on carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds."

Christoff says independent studies showed this would lead to demonstrable health benefits.  That's one of the many reasons Placer County is planning to build a 2 megawatt biomass plant on county-owned land just outside Truckee.

Transportation cost is a complicating factor.  It's much cheaper to burn the biomass in a pile in the forest than to truck it to a facility, says Kerri Timmer, who works for the state's Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

TIMMER: "And there's at this point no guarantee for what price will be paid for the power that's generated using the material.  So it's hard to get all of these commitments lined up to a point where an investor would feel comfortable in putting a lot of money into this up front." 

But recent legislation should help.  A bill passed this year requires California's three biggest energy producers to purchase 50 megawatts of energy generated from forest biomass power plants.  

That's about enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

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