NORTH FORK – The proposed biomass plant at the old mill site was just one of the issues discussed at the Town Hall meeting hosted by District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler at the Mono Rancheria Community Center in North Fork on Thursday, Mar. 28.
Community Development Council (CDC) president Dan Rosenberg shared details of the project, which is the first community-scale forest bioenergy project in California, and is being viewed as a potential model for other communities throughout the Sierra.
“This project will provide 4 to 5 good jobs at the site,” said Rosenberg. “Working at the plant, moving chips, running equipment, and safety controls. It will create auxiliary jobs as well, up to as many as 10 in the forest; trucking, harvesting, brush clearing, chipping.
The process to produce bioenergy does not involve burning. It is a closed system called pyrolysis, which heats the wood to a very high temperature, releasing gasses such as hydrogen that power a reconfigured diesel generator, creating electricity, along with a by-product known as biochar.
Biochar used to be considered a throw-away, but is now sought after by agricultural companies for use as a soil amendment.
The other by-product of the process is heat.
“A business on the mill site could use this supply of heat to grow hot-house tomatoes or orchids,” said Rosenberg. “A private business could benefit from this on-site, affordable source of heat.”
Another benefit of the biomass plant would be improvements to the health of the forest, both on public and private land, say proponents.
“Successfully finding economic uses for small scale woody debris from the forests has the potential to increase fire safety, improve ecological conditions and support local economies,” said Rosenberg.
Entrepreneurs wanting to start a wood chipping business would not only be removing debris and decreasing potential fire fuels, but would also be creating jobs in the area, which, says Rosenberg, is the mission of the CDC.
The option of delivering biomass to the plant in North Fork would also mitigate the burning of huge piles of slash in the forest, which is the current method of disposing of biomass created from thinning or harvesting projects.
In a study done to evaluate the supply of biomass available from the forest, Rosenberg says it was determined that within a 30-mile radius of the mill site, there is enough biomass each year to power a 2-megawatt plant. The proposed North Fork plant is just 1-megawatt.
“The state of California has now passed a law that would require utility companies to buy 50 megawatts of power from generators that produce electricity from forest biomass that is sustainably harvested,” said Rosenberg. “So all of a sudden there is a demand for these projects, and North Fork’s is the furthest along, and therefore is at the top of the list.”
The CDC also won a very competitive grant, called the Woody BUG (Biomass Utilization Grant), which was used to pay for the preliminary engineering, recently completed by Provost and Pritchard of Fresno. The engineering was part of a package that went to Madera County for a conditional use permit.
When asked how the community can help support the project, Elissa Brown, consultant for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said there will be a Madera County Planning Commission meeting on the project on May 7, at which time the County will consider the conditional use permit, and citizens will be able to voice their opinions.
For more information on this project, click here.