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County steps forward with biomass project

Lori Simpson, chairwoman of the board of supervisors, said that she has been on the board for nine years and that entire time the board has been discussing biofuels. “Now, we have the whole package,” she said. “A non-profit went out and acquired a grant to help pay for the system.”

“Yes there is a certain amount of risk,” she added, “However, I ask myself, ‘Am I going to be a visionary?’”

Simpson declared, “I think this is a great opportunity. We are going to be the showcase for the state. I don’t want to lose this opportunity.”

The board voted 4 to 1 on Aug. 1 (Supervisor Sherrie Thrall cast the no vote) to sign contracts with the Sierra Institute to build and run a $2.6 million biomass plant to heat the Plumas County Health and Human Services building. The facility will also sell electricity to FRC and back to PG&E.

Andrew Haden, president of Wisewood Energy, the entity building the plant, said. “We anticipate starting work next week. Our goal is to have the system up and running by the time snow flies this winter.”

“Triple redundancy” backup

Haden said the project has “triple redundancy” backup. The biomass boiler will provide most of the heat for the building in the winter.

A propane system will provide heat to warm up the building in spring and fall when it doesn’t make sense to start up the biomass system.

The building is currently heated by geothermal energy from a series of heat pumps in the ground. The geothermal system lacked sufficient heat pumps when it was built, so those pumps that were in operation pumped too much heat out of the ground and were pulling cold air. They also needed to be replaced prematurely because they were running all the time.

With the biomass system taking over the bulk of the heating in winter, Haden said geothermal heat will return around the heat pumps and they will start pulling hot air again.

Finally, the building has an electric heating system, should all other systems fail.

Questions asked

Wisewood Energy will be operating the biomass system for a year for the Sierra Institute and working out any issues.

After the system is up and functioning, the system will be maintained by the Plumas County’s facility services department.

Supervisor, Sherrie Thrall, questioned whether facility services, which she said was already understaffed, would be able to take on the new biomass system as well.

Dony Sawchuk, director of facility services, said that his department was currently using two fulltime employees to keep the failing geothermal system going. He said he believed there would be a large savings in manpower for his department with the new system.

Mark Mihevc, from Graeagle, questioned whether the energy and monetary savings promised by Wisewood were backed up in its spreadsheet. In an apparent misunderstanding, Mihevc thought that Wisewood had left out the energy costs of running the heat pumps, making the energy and monetary savings a loss instead.

Haden responded that the energy costs for running the fuel pumps were included. However, he said, since those costs were the same with both the current situation and with the proposed biofuel project, they weren’t shown.

Haden estimated the biomass plant would save $30,451 in heating costs per year as compared with the current geothermal system.

Haden said his company’s estimate of savings utilized conservative numbers. He said a plant they built in Burns, Oregon saved much more money than estimated.

Haden said of his company, which has built other state-of-the-art biomass energy systems, “Our approach is to under promise and over deliver.”

Haden estimated a 13-year payback on the county’s $400,000 investment and the biomass plant will burn 400-500 tons of local wood a year.

Hayden also displayed a graph that compared the emissions from burning wood biomass in the forests and burning the same amount of biomass in its biomass boiler.

The biomass boiler emitted almost no carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds or 10 micrometer particles (1-3 percent) as compared with burning fires in the forest. The biomass boiler emitted 40 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions as compared to the piles.

Support for the project

Quincy Library Group co-founder and attorney Michael Jackson said, “We have been working on biomass for years and years and years. This is a well-designed project.”

Sue McCourt, of the Plumas County Office of Emergency Services, and Hannah Hepner, Plumas County Fire Safe Council coordinator, also advised the board to approve the project.

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