Arizona Corporation Commissioner Leah Marquez Peterson’s dogged effort to spur a reconsideration of a biomass mandate this month hit another setback.
The commission agreed to include biomass in a discussion of an overhaul of its rules on energy from renewable sources, but ended up postponing the discussion until at least Oct. 29.
Efforts to thin the forest and protect White Mountains communities from megafires have met repeated rebuffs since last year when the commission on a 3-2 vote refused to require the state’s electrical utilities to generate 60 to 90 megawatts of power annually by burning the biomass wood slash from thinning projects.
Peterson and Commissioner Boyd Dunn voted in favor of the mandate, which would generate a market for enough wood slash to support 50,000 acres of thinning projects annually. However, the other three commissioners voted against the proposal — which would have prompted Arizona Public Service to convert one unit of the slated-to-close, coal-fired Cholla Power Plant into a biomass plant. The mandate would have also guaranteed the future of the state’s only existing biomass plant, the 28-megawatt NovoPower plant in Snowflake.
Peterson hasn’t convinced the commission majority to reconsider the rejection of a biomass mandate, but hopes to include biomass as part of an overhaul of the commission’s renewable energy rules. Several years ago, the commission adopted a rule requiring utilities to get 15% of their energy from renewable sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. The rule made the NovoPower plant possible, because at that time biomass was the cheapest renewable energy source.
Since then, technological improvements in large-scale solar and wind power generating plants have made them cheaper than coal, oil and biomass plants.
Biomass could play a role in the current competition for three seats on the corporation commission. Peterson is running for re-election on a platform that includes a biomass mandate. The order to generate about half a percent of the energy produced from biomass would add an estimated $1 a month to the average electric bill, compared to generating the same amount of power from solar or natural gas.
The three Democrats running — Bill Mundell, Ana Tovar and Shea Stanfield — say they favor requiring utilities to eventually get half of their energy from renewable sources and they consider biomass a renewable source. However, without a specific mandate, biomass would probably lose out to solar plants based on price. The Democratic slate hasn’t ruled out a biomass mandate.
The two other Republicans running — Eric Sloan and James O’Conner — have said they oppose mandates and power companies should chose the least expensive source of energy.
Peterson said the key may lie in figuring out how to calculate the other cost benefits from burning biomass, which would rescue forest thinning efforts stalled for a decade.
She noted that compared to a wildfire, burning biomass would dramatically reduce the release of and health-damaging soot and chemicals. Studies suggest the four million acres that have burned this year in California released more heat-trapping gas than all the man-made sources in the whole year.
Burning biomass to spur forest thinning would also protect billions of dollars in property, watersheds and even power company infrastructure like transmission lines passing through the forest, she said.
“The problem remains how you can calculate those costs and somehow take it into account when it comes to using biomass as a fuel,” said Peterson.
She hopes the Oct. 29 discussion will open that topic, with the goal of ensuring that the overhaul of the ACC’s energy conservation and renewable energy standards will create the market for wood slash and biomass necessary to jump-start forest thinning efforts. The 4-Forest Restoration Initiative hopes to thin 2 million acres in Northern California from about 1,000 trees per acres to less than 100 trees per acre, dramatically reducing the risk of a town-destroying megafire.