Two years after the California Energy Commission granted the Sierra Institute $2.6 million to build a biomass boiler in Plumas County, the project is edging ever closer to reality.
A public hearing is scheduled Aug. 1 and we hope that this will be the final hurdle before construction gets underway. The biomass boiler would provide heat and electricity for the county’s health and human services building, as well as provide a host of environmental and public benefits.
“If we get this in, it will be a showpiece for the whole state,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Lori Simpson said during last week’s meeting when the supervisors received an update on the project.
The health and human services building’s geothermal system has not been able to provide the level of heat desired, so as a result, many employees use space heaters in their offices. Facilities Director Dony Sawchuk said this is not only expensive, it’s a fire hazard.
Proponents of the biomass system promise that it will dramatically reduce power costs while maintaining a comfortable climate for employees. The system would also include a propane generator for backup, as well as to provide heat during the shoulder seasons when it wouldn’t be necessary to fire up the biomass generator. Jonathan Kusel, executive director of the Sierra Institute, estimates that it would save the county $30,000 per year in electrical costs over its current system.
Not only would the biomass generator save the county money, it would provide other benefits: immediate and ongoing jobs, an improved overall economy, more fire resilient forests, better air quality and an enhanced watershed.
As wildfires ravage California and the West, they provide daily reminders of how important it is to make our forests as fire resilient as possible, which includes thinning and creating defensible fuel profile zones. A market for biomass materials will help realize those goals, because even when timber lots are put up for sale, some go unsold because it is cost prohibitive for loggers to get rid of the material. Now the debris can be chipped and used by the new biomass system.
Let’s hope that following the Aug. 1 public hearing, the Plumas County supervisors will vote to proceed with the project. The county is required to put up a $400,000 match, but with a $30,000 per year savings, the county could realize a 13-year payback. The alternative is to repair and add to the existing system, which would not only cost far more, but would not provide the added benefits of utilizing biomass.