NORTH FORK — The exact center of California was the place to be today as the innovative North Fork Community Power Bioenergy Facility celebrated its official groundbreaking and the community united to welcome a new source of forest thinning and renewal. This is a pilot project that will pave the way for future facilities of its kind throughout the state.
Madera County Fire Station 11 at the Old Mill Site was the venue for the festivities. Scores were in attendance, from county and state representatives to various non-profits, along with Cal Fire, Paid Call Firefighters and community members alike. All were present to usher in this milestone event that puts our mountain area on the map and may just change the way we do things in the West.
Dan Rosenberg kicked off the morning by sharing the original vision for the project. The North Fork Community Development Council (CDC) President entertained the crowd as he painted a picture of North Fork in an imagined future with a new data processing center powered by a green source of energy, along with greenhouses that grow produce to meet the needs of the community, and thriving businesses. All things are possible, Dan noted, in a world where the Cubs win the World Series!
Dan says the project is primarily funded through a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission. Electricity will be created by baking the wood from the dead trees and collecting gas emissions.
“We’re going to sell it back to the grid through PG&E. With the money generated it becomes an economic engine to our community.”
Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler took the floor after Pheonix Energy’s Greg Stangl introduced him as our “Chief Remover of Obstacles.” Phoenix Energy has partnered to build and run the biomass plant.
North Fork Community Power is a public/private partnership between the North Fork CDC and Phoenix Energy.
Tom, who has long been an integral part of this community, spoke proudly of the nonprofit agencies that coalesced to bring this project to fruition, including the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation District covering four counties, and the North Fork Mono Rancheria who funded the 12-acre parcel. The supervisor credited the Forest Service for “staying behind us non-stop,” saying this may not be the “Silver Bullet solution,” but it is the sharpest tool in our box to help us efficiently navigate the tremendous tree mortality issues of the wildland-urban interface.
Senator Tom Berryhill and Assemblymember Frank Bigelow were both represented, as statements of strong support and accolades were given by their legislative assistants. MaryAlice Kaloostian is Fresno’s District Director for Senator Berryhill and Mika Petrucci, Field Representative to Assemblyman Bigelow. Also taking the stage in order to share their perspectives and participation were Angie Lottes of The Watershed Research and Training Center, along with Len Nielson from Cal Fire, Sarah Campe with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and Sierra National Forest Supervisor Dean Gould.
The North Fork Biomass project began as a seed of the CDC working in partnership with the community to determine what to do with the Old Mill site. The most popular request was to bring back the mill.
The new plant is a scientific research project, says Brittany Dyer, District Chief of Staff to Supervisor Wheeler’s office. She calls it a “new-age biomass facility,” on the cutting edge of technology and paving the way for a sustainable approach to clean energy and a viable response to forest restoration. The plant generates renewable energy consistent with the California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard as outlined in the recently enacted Senate Bill 1122. The standard requires independently owned utility companies to buy 50 MW of power each year from plants that are 3 MW or smaller, that generate power from sustainably harvested forest biomass.
This project puts North Fork in the spotlight where it is recognized locally and state-wide, opening avenues for funds through associated activities while making our grant applications competitive, Brittany continues. Phase I is to get the biomass facility up and running, and Phase II is to get the University of California at Merced to study the technology and results for approximately six months.
The Forest Service, PG&E, and potentially other entities will be the main source for logs and woody biomass, says Justine Reynolds, Project Manager of Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council. The plant can only take in extremely clean wood at this point but, in time, the goal is to have the facililty meet Forest Service standards in order to take in product from the general public. This process will significantly reduce the need for “pile and burn” treatment of excess forest material.
The facility will generate approximately one to two megawatts of electricity, delivered to the grid. That’s enough electricity to power between 1,000 and 2,000 homes. The facility will use about 50 to 80 tons of biomass fuel per day (an average of two to four large truckloads), which will primarily consist of chipped small-diameter timber and brush. This wood fiber is a byproduct of fuels reduction projects and sustainable forest management operations and would otherwise be piled and burned, or chipped and scattered in the forest.
Another element of the process is biochar, a value-added soil amendment known for its carbon storage properties. As a fixed-carbon soil amendment, farmers love it, Brittany notes. Biochar retains precious water and is also used in water purification. Overall, say the experts, this project is carbon-neutral for air quality, and emissions drop significantly compared to open burning in fuels reduction.
The plant is contained for minimal noise impact, which should be about same as the sound levels of the Crossroads Recycled Lumber facility currently on site. The noise levels will fall within the County’s regular noise limits, and night time light restrictions will be put in place, as well.
Right now, the biggest advantage to the community is the potential for forest restoration, with a strong focus on the wildland-urban interface areas that have been impacted by tree die-off. This will help in dealing with wildfire by proactively mitigating some of the tree mortality, with the least impact and greatest benefit we have at this time. The plant will accommodate four or five permanent jobs, opening up at prevailing wage, with the potential for twice that number in the field. Another bonus? We can expect to see road improvements.
As a community we can support this project by attending CDC meetings and staying informed, and by contacting our state representatives to let them know we want them to support this project to the fullest possible extent.
As far as positive growth and development of our mountain communities, and the mitigation of the tree mortality crisis to the best of our ability, today was a very good day in North Fork!
This project is being supported and developed by a team of NGOs, agencies, and private companies including FCDC, Phoenix Energy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Sierra Resource Conservation District, TSS Communications, UC Merced, The Watershed Research and Training Center, and Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council.