An Arizona-based environmental group is challenging Placer County's plans to build a small power plant near Truckee that would burn forest waste wood, questioning whether such biomass facilities warrant their reputation as producers of green energy.
As government regulators have mandated that more renewable energy sources be used to help combat global warming, the biomass power industry has pitched its power plants to communities as a cleaner, reliable alternative to coal. The Biomass Power Association industry group defines biomass energy on its website as "carbon neutral electricity generated from renewable organic waste."
But the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, has appealed the county Planning Commission's December approval of a 2-megawatt facility. That appeal, which questions the sufficiency of the environmental study, is expected to be heard by the county Board of Supervisors in March.
The environmental group's issues with biomass power plants go far beyond the Placer approval process, however, and it has been challenging such projects worldwide in recent years. The center says on its website that, far from benefiting the environment, biomass plants increase climate-damaging greenhouse gases, and that it has the research to back it up.
The center challenges biomass claims on many fronts. A major concern, it says, is that plants like the one proposed for Placer County will eventually turn from waste wood to burning healthy trees harvested for their power value.
"A lot of people think that burning trees for power doesn't impact the environment," said Kevin Bundy, a lawyer working out of the biodiversity center's San Francisco office. "More wood will be taken out of the forest, because that wood now has value."
County, federal and industry officials defend Placer's biomass plant proposal against every objection.
Brett Storey, who is managing the project for the county, said the center is wrong about biomass producing excess greenhouse gases. And he said the state of the art gasification plant will provide other benefits, such as reducing the need to generate 2 megawatts through burning coal the chief source of power for the area utility to which the plant hopes to sell its power.
The plant, he said, will burn only wood left behind by forest-thinning activities, contributing to a healthier forest and reducing the risk of devastating wildfires.
"It helps them get rid of their material so they don't have to burn it," Storey said.
During the course of forest-thinning operations, the U.S. Forest Service, through its contractors, sells the usable timber and leaves some wood behind as habitat and for erosion control. Anything else is waste, said Larry Swan, biomass coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region
Unless there is a biomass facility nearby that will take the waste, the agency will wait for a "window" of low fire danger, low winds and acceptable air quality and then burn it, Swan said.
"We wish we had more places to go with material that has no value," he said.
The plant would focus on acquiring materials from within 30 miles, or a one-hour drive, of the proposed site at the Eastern Regional Materials Recovery Facility and Transfer Station at Cabin Creek, along Highway 89 between Lake Tahoe and Truckee.
Swan said that given the small size of the plant, its location and the rate of forest growth, there will be no problem finding waste to burn.
"They have more than enough to fuel that plant in perpetuity," he said.
And Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, based in Maine, said that biomass plant simply "can't afford to burn merchantable timber."
Bundy and the Center for Biological Diversity are familiar with the arguments but unconvinced.
"The most honest thing the county can do is admit that the project would increase greenhouse gas emissions," Bundy said. "I don't think this EIR is really providing a good basis for a decision."
While biomass plants reduce other emissions and particulate matter, there is no filter for carbon dioxide, Bundy said. The center prefers wind and solar as producers of green energy.
Proponents of biomass point out that wind and solar can't operate around the clock, seven days a week.
Bundy said his organization is not afraid to stand alone as other environmental groups continue to support (or at least not fight) biomass.
"There is no free lunch. There is no magic bullet that doesn't have any consequences. You can't just slap an environmental label on it and call it good," he said. "We don't want to adopt a strategy that 10 or 20 years from now made things worse."