NORTH FORK — A project nearly a decade in planning appears poised to begin final construction, possibly as soon as later this year.
Proponents of a plan to build a two mega-watt biomass plant in North Fork are in the midst of finalizing a multi-million dollar financing package that will pave the way for full-scale construction to begin at the development site.
“At this point, we feel pretty confident the escrow is going to close in the next month or so,” said Greg Stangl, of Phoenix Energy, one of the project’s developers along with the North Fork Community Development Council (CDC).
Under the current timeline, Stangl said the North Fork biomass plant could be operational by the end of 2020. “Our goal right now,” he said, “is to be making electricity within 14 months of the [financing] deal’s closing.”
“You know the joke about the deal that dies 1,000 times? Well, this has been the deal that has died 10,000 times,” Stangl said this week. “But North Fork is one resilient town. They’ve continued to keep their chin up about this project.”
North Fork Community Power, the official name of the public-private joint venture behind the biomass plant, has already put about $4 million into the project, but still needs to sell about $15 million in tax-exempt bonds to finance the remaining construction.
As it works to bring the North Fork project online, Phoenix Energy, a so-called “private label” power company, is also currently working on plans with other partners to build new biomass plants up and down the Sierra, all near former lumber mill sites, according to Stangl.
“We’ve got projects in Mariposa, Wilseyville in Calaveras County and Camptonville in Yuba County,” Stangl said. “But the plant in North Fork will be the first to go online.”
According to Stangl, seven different law firms are currently hammering out the details surrounding the pending bond sale. Interest rates on the bonds, Stangl said, will have to be higher because of the uncertainty surrounding PG&E’s efforts to emerge from bankruptcy.
Stangl also confirmed this week that in July the joint venture paid PG&E more than $1 million “just to get them to plug us in.” That payment, Stangl added, was facilitated through a loan to the joint venture from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank.
CDC president Dan Rosenberg, who has been working on the project for more than seven years, was out of town this week but Tom Burdette, a CDC board member and the plant’s construction coordinator, confirmed Thursday the joint venture expects to make “a major announcement very soon.”
A project update, including the latest information about the pending bond sale, is expected at the next CDC board meeting, which will take place Monday, August 26, at 5:30 p.m. in the North Fork CDC Conference Room at the Mill Site.
The biomass plant will be built at 34000 Koso Nobe Road on 10.5 acres at the Old Mill Site on a parcel once classified as a federal Superfund cleanup site.
At one time in North Fork, a ten mega-watt biomass plant operated near the old timber mill, but that facility closed more than 25 years ago.
The developers say the new, 5,000 square-foot biomass plant will create at least a dozen new local jobs and operate 24 hours a day, using giant gas engines to convert dead trees into electricity.
The new plant’s foundation has already been poured and the earth work to prepare for construction has been completed.
Stangl said the plant’s gassification process “bakes” rather than “burns” the dead trees, limiting air pollution and producing a solid carbon by-product called bio-char, which can be sold to area farmers for use as a soil additive.
Electricity created at the plant will be sold to PG&E through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) — and then distributed to PG&E customers in North Fork and surrounding areas.
At present, North Fork Community Power has an agreement to sell PG&E electricity for about 20 cents per kilowatt. Stangl expects PG&E to honor that agreement, especially since it’s backed up by state law. Senate Bill 1122, signed into law in 2012, was created to add an additional 250 mega-watts of capacity for investor-owned utilities so that they can offer so-called ‘feed-in’ PPAs for eligible projects like the one in North Fork.
Crafted to help combat the tree mortality crisis in the Sierra, Stangl said SB 1122 dictates that “twenty percent of the additional 250 mega-watt capacity must come from projects that rely on ‘forestry sources.'”
“There’s a reason the state passed a law forcing PG&E to buy power from projects like ours,” Stangl said. “Our plant will help promote environmental sustainability and reduce forest waste — and the chances of future fires. This is the kind of project PG&E should be really supporting right now.”