Supervisors to hold public hearing on biomass boiler

The fate of a biomass boiler that would provide power and heat to the Plumas County Health and Human Services building will be discussed next Tuesday, Aug. 1.

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors is holding a public hearing, scheduled for 11 a.m. to receive input on whether or not to pursue construction of the facility advanced by Sierra Institute.

The California Energy Commission awarded Sierra Institute $2.6 million to build the facility, which would be the first of its kind in the state. The county’s match would be $400,000.

After construction and one season of operation, the system would become county property.

The biomass boiler is being considered because the current geothermal heating system isn’t keeping up with the need, and employees are using space heaters, which are expensive and potentially a hazard. To be effective, the geothermal system would need to be expanded, and several heat pumps replaced, which would be more costly, than installing a new biomass boiler.

The proposed biomass system would include a propane backup generator as well as utilize the existing geothermal field.

The supervisors have discussed the biomass boiler proposal for the past two years, with the board sometimes divided over whether to proceed.

Back in May of 2015, Supervisor Lori Simpson pushed for the project, saying, “This will be the model for the whole state.” However, Supervisor Sherrie Thrall sought more details. “This is a big obligation for the county,” she said. “It’s too loosey-goosey.”

In the past two years, Sierra Institute has provided more details, and recently Dony Sawchuk, the county’s facilities supervisor, visited a working biomass boiler in Burns, Oregon.

“I was thoroughly impressed with the feedback that we’ve received from the city of Burns,” Sawchuk told the supervisors during a July 11 meeting. The system heats city buildings, a school, churches, the jail and a hospital, and creates energy.

“It’s running 40 percent cheaper than projected,” Sawchuk said, “with the school reporting a 60 percent savings in heating costs.”

The savings projection for the health and human services building is 30 percent. Jonathan Kusel, the executive director of the Sierra Institute, said there’s a similar potential in Plumas County for a network of boilers to heat buildings such as Quincy High School and the new jail (both of which are being discussed.)

The building

The building to house the biomass system was originally conceived as a metal building, but that has changed. Now it is proposed to be constructed using cross-laminated timber — a building material that is fire safe, structurally sound and renewable. The cross-laminated timber, also known as mass timber, originated in Europe, and is growing in popularity in the United States.

Kusel said that last year it was a $100 million industry, is expected to be $500 million this year, and forecast to be $1 billion next. The material is composed of two-by-fours or two-by-sixes that are either laminated or nailed together to make a strong product that can be used for arches, beams and walls. “It’s taken off across the country,” Kusel said, and is just now being introduced in California.

In fact Microsoft announced that it would be building a new 700,000-square foot headquarters with 400,000 square feet of cross-laminated timber panels.

The boiler

While a biomass boiler of this sort would be the first in the state, it’s common throughout Europe and Canada, and other parts of the United States.

Kusel and Andrew Haden, the president of Wisewood (an Oregon firm that designs biomass facilities) explained how the Plumas model would work.

The facility would be 2,400 square feet and include a combustion chamber and a boiler. Two interchangeable bins would be used to hold the biomass (in this case wood chips) to be fed into the combustor.

Trucks would deliver the chips two to three times per week during the winter when the biomass boiler would be used. A propane backup generator could be used during the shoulder months.

Haden said system benefits are:

— efficiency, with at least 85 percent or higher efficiency ratings

— clean, with very low emissions (there would be no visible smoke, simply a vapor plume that would evaporate)

economical, fuel prices lower than oil, propane and electricity

— sustainable, fuel readily available

“It uses what we have in abundance,” Kusel said during an interview last week.

The equipment will be able to handle a variety of fuels, but will work most efficiently with dry, chipped material. The Sierra Institute plans to build a facility in Crescent Mills to produce chips with a grant from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The raw materials used to produce the chips could include yard waste as well as the biomass that is removed from the forests during thinning projects.

Kusel said that the community benefits as a whole from cleaner air, tax dollar savings that could be spent on something other than heat and electricity, and a market for green waste.

The timeline

Following Tuesday’s public hearing, the supervisors are expected to vote on whether to proceed. If they approve, then work will begin immediately.

Kusel is optimistic. “It uses what we have in abundance,” he said. “It’s a natural fit for our county — socially, culturally and environmentally.”