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Biomass to Energy Facility

Placer County is developing an approach to finance and install a new small scale combined heat and power facility at the "Cabin Creek" site in eastern Placer County. This facility will utilize technology that is powered entirely by woody biomass - a green renewable fuel generated as a byproduct of hazardous forest fuels reduction activities. Scheduled to be operational in the 2014/15 timeframe, the facility will generate electricity 24/7 for distribution in eastern Placer County. It will also provide a demonstration of heat for the building and to melt snow on the roof, road, and sidewalks of the site.

Final EIR

Draft EIR

Reports

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is woody biomass and where does it come from?

A: Woody biomass is composed of trees including wood from the bole (trunk) of the tree, limbs, tops, roots and even the foliage. Woody biomass can include shrubs and other woody plants. The principal sources of woody biomass for energy production have historically been: 1) trees killed or damaged by fire, insects, disease, drought or that have no other use; 2) trees grown specifically for energy production; and 3) trees removed to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations or improve forest health. Woody biomass also includes wood wastes from urban areas (e.g., construction wood, tree trimmings) and products derived from trees such as lumber, paper and byproducts of wood manufacturing (e.g., sawdust and bark).


Q: What is renewable biomass energy? Why is it renewable?

A: A renewable resource is one that naturally replenishes itself after it has been used or which is never depleted by use. Examples of renewable resources that are used to produce electricity include water, sunlight, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Renewable energy technologies harness the energy in renewable energy resources. In the cases of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, use does not deplete the resource. Biomass resources can be replenished as trees can be propagated naturally or with the help of foresters.

There are three ways in which biomass resources can be utilized for electricity: 1) conversion of materials such as urban wood wastes and mill wastes, 2) dedicated energy crops (trees, shrubs and other plants grown specifically for energy production), and 3) as a byproduct of forest management activities. For example, biomass can be produced from thinning forest stands to reduce hazardous fuel loads or improve forest health. Generally, the biomass consists of small trees that are not usable for lumber or other purposes. Energy production from such sources is sustainable as long as there continues to be forest management activities producing and replenishing the biomass.


Q: What is a biomass power generation facility? How is power currently generated from wood?

A: A biomass power plant utilizes woody biomass for the production of electricity and/or heat. The wood is combusted in boiler systems and fitted with air emissions controls which create steam used to spin a turbine that produces electricity. Or, in cogeneration, the wood is used to generate both electricity and heat. Once steam is used to spin the turbine, it is extracted to provide heat for other processes (e.g., drying, heating). Finally, wood can be used in combination with other fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas to fire boilers and create electricity (also known as co-firing).


Q: How big is a biomass power plant? How big is the proposed eastern Placer County biomass facility?

A: The intended end use of the energy and the availability of fuel/feedstock determine the capacity of a biomass power plant to generate electricity. In the U.S., most biomass power plants are associated with forest industries such as sawmills. These produce electricity and heat or steam using biomass wastes (e.g., sawdust and bark) from the sawmill operations. Electricity and heat or steam generated can be utilized for the sawmill. Excess electricity can be sold to the electrical grid. Generally, biomass power plants are larger than 15 megawatts (one megawatt is enough to service about 1,000 households for a year), but can range from less than 1 MW to over 50 MW. It takes about 8,000 bone dry tons (2 big trucks a day) of woody biomass to produce one MW of electricity on an annual basis. The eastern Placer County biomass facility is proposed to generate between 1 and 3 MW of renewable electricity.


Q: What waste products does the plant produce?

A: Biomass power plants produce ash (about 3 to 5% of the fuel input by weight). Depending on the source of biomass and the combustion process, power plant ash can be used as a soil amendment or in masonry and cement products. Water used to create steam for electricity production can be recycled.


Q: What air pollution issues does biomass power present?

A: Biomass power plants are designed with air pollution controls for minimizing discharges of regulated air pollutants. Biomass power plants are subject to regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board, and local air quality management districts. Biomass power plants can eliminate 95-99 percent of pollutants that would otherwise be produced by open burning of that same biomass.


Q: How would biomass power impact wildfire catastrophes? Will biomass power endanger our forests?

A: Throughout the western U.S., a large potential source of biomass for power production is fire hazard reduction projects. Removing biomass from the forest during the course of fuel reduction treatments will reduce the threat of wildfire and decrease the area burned in catastrophic fires. Properly executed fire hazard reduction projects can also improve forest health and make the forest less susceptible to drought, insect attacks and disease. Utilizing biomass for energy production will make fuel treatments more economically feasible by creating a market for such biomass material that currently has little or no value. Biomass power plants therefore pose little or no risk to forests from over-cutting and actually can contribute to improvements in forest health and reduced fire hazard.


Q: How is it renewable energy if it emits greenhouse gases?

A: A biomass power plant does produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. However, if the fuel supply is obtained as a byproduct of reducing fire hazard in natural forests, the plant emissions may be offset by the reduced emissions that would have occurred if the forest burned. Wildfires are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, it has been estimated that the 2007 Angora fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin released 141,000 metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere within a period of a few days. This is equivalent to the emissions from over 28,000 cars in one year. By utilizing fuels derived from forest management that reduces the probability of wildfire and considering the natural growth patterns of biomass, a biomass power plant can be considered “carbon neutral.” Biomass is a unique fuel in that it is derived from a resource that is naturally replenishing by taking in carbon from the atmosphere. Also, using biomass for electricity production may offset the use of fossil fuels, further reducing greenhouse gas production.


Q: Will there be an increased cost of lumber products or food produce? Will any food crops be impacted (like corn due to ethanol production)?

A: As previously discussed, sources of wood for biomass power generation do not have “higher and better” uses such as conversion to lumber. They mainly consist of materials that would not be used otherwise, such as residues (e.g., small stems, brush) from fire hazard reduction. Consequently, there would be no impact on lumber prices. Unlike activities such as biofuels production (e.g., ethanol) that currently consume biomass usable for food (such as corn), production of electricity from woody biomass would not have an impact on food supply or prices.


Q: Is biomass power more expensive than other power generation?

A: When compared to the direct monetary costs of power production from fossil fuels and hydroelectric power, biomass power is currently more expensive. Biomass power requires fuel that has considerable collection, processing and handling costs. However, rising coal and natural gas costs, which in turn drive up the price of electricity, are allowing biomass energy production to become much more competitive. In addition, when the currently non-monetized societal benefits of biomass use, such as reduced catastrophic wildfire, improved air quality, forest health, reduction of greenhouse gases, and renewed rural community development are factored in, biomass-based electricity provides significant benefits over fossil fuel-based electricity.


Q: Can biomass be used to make liquid or gas fuels? What about transportation fuels?

A: Scientific and technical processes are being developed in order to convert the cellulosic material of woody biomass into usable fuels. Significant research and development is currently underway to make such conversion processes technically and economically viable. However, conversion technologies are not yet considered economical and are not used on an industrial scale (e.g., corn to ethanol). Synthetic gas fuels (syngas – similar to natural gas) and liquid fuels (ethanol and synthetic diesel) have been created in pilot-scale facilities in Europe and in limited quantities in the United States. The primary challenge of developing liquid or gas fuels from woody biomass is breaking down the complex cellulosic structure of wood into simple hydrocarbons and sugars that can be converted into liquid fuels. Because of the promise that biofuels may have for reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, significant private and public sector resources are being devoted to support research, development and commercial deployment of biomass to fuels conversion technologies.



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Programs

County Programs
Numerous existing County projects are designed to remove biomass fuels from private land for the express purpose of protecting homes, businesses, and the community in general. The County also intends to build on the USFS’ directive to promote healthy forests even beyond WUI areas and into accessible forested regions. The County has worked with organizations to develop and maintain fuel breaks and conduct defensible space inspections. In addition, the County is poised to begin managing open space and parks with a more aggressive hazardous fuels reduction program. The County will continue to review and implement projects that promote fire prevention, and it will look to more directly encourage up-front activities, such as the mandatory installation of fuel breaks whenever new homes and businesses are developed in the WUI.

Biomass Box Program
County staff has already developed and implemented the operating methods and budget to place biomass boxes into our communities that require defensible space treatments. The idea is to promote defensible space by all businesses and homeowners during the Spring, and then to provide these “boxes” to allow the public to have the material removed easily and at little or no cost. This program has already become a mainstay for the County, and it helps the County in its mission to protect its citizens and visitors from the consequences of catastrophic wildfires. It also provides an alternative to “open burning”, thereby reducing the amount of air pollution.

Regional Biomass Removal Program
Placer County has begun a program to provide regional woody biomass drop off locations to allow for larger projects to dispose of their materials efficiently. In addition, this will reduce the cost of collection, processing and hauling the material to be used for renewable energy. Starting with the eastern Placer County region, several locations have been secured to allow major producers of biomass material to drop it off rather than haul it to a landfill, throw it back on the ground, or burn it in the open. We are working with our many Fire Safe Councils, Fire Districts, USFS, CALFIRE, State Parks, and commercial contractors to allow for trash free disposal of their materials. To that end, we will use our funding to work with a regional contractor that takes material and grinds it into chips then transports that material to the nearest energy facility. Eventually we will have several landings throughout Placer County to have woody biomass stored until a portable tub grinder can come to chip the material and haul it to the biomass plants.

Distributed Biomass Facility Development Program
Placer County is looking to develop multiple distributed bio-energy facilities throughout the region. These facilities should be based upon the economic working circles of the available forest (and urban) woody biomass waste. Currently, plans are in place to develop a woody biomass cogeneration system producing electricity and heat for collocated use in eastern Placer County. Future facilities may likely include woody biomass to transport fuels as well.

Placer County Biomass to Electricity Project
Placer County is developing an approach to develop, finance and install a new small scale (2 megawatts) combined heat and power facility in eastern Placer County. This facility will utilize technology that is powered entirely by woody biomass - a green renewable fuel generated as a byproduct of hazardous forest fuels reduction activities. Scheduled to be in operation in 2014/15, the facility will provide heat and renewable power 24/7 to Placer County. The Biomass to Energy Facility would be composed of essentially a power plant building (roughly 90' by 120', two-story) and a fuel handling/delivery system, along with emissions controls.

Forest Fuel Treatment - Economic and Emission Analysis Project
Placer County is actively working with public and private forest management organizations, including the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and local Fire Safe Councils, on a number of forest fuels reduction projects to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfire events. These projects include selective thinning and removal of tress and brush to return forest ecosystems to more natural stocking levels, resulting in a more fire-resilient forest. Forest fuel treatment projects will be conducted to reduce existing forest fuel loads and mitigate the associated negative impacts of wildfires (including air quality, public health, water quality, recreation, fire fighting costs and resource loss). Biomass waste material from these projects will be used as fuel in biomass-to-energy plants. Costs for the forest management and biomass-to-energy activities (such as thinning and slash processing and transport) will be evaluated and optimized. Green House Gas (GHG) and criteria pollutant emissions reductions from the fuel treatment and biomass to energy will also be evaluated and valued which in turn could be used to credit offsets for fossil-fuel GHG emissions. The potential for this funding to be used to allow many more healthy forest projects is unlimited.

Questions can be directed to Brett Storey, Planning Services Division, 530-745-3011, email: bstorey@placer.ca.gov
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