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  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Hugh Smith, president and CEO of Greenleaf Power, says that since the company moved from Chicago, "Sacramento has been great for us."

  • Greenleaf Power

    The Desert View biomass plant in Riverside County, owned and run by Sacramento-based Greenleaf Power, is in Mecca, about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs.

Biomass company excited to be headquartered in Sacramento

Published: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 9:19 am

Situated amid homes in a quiet, leafy section of midtown Sacramento is the headquarters of one of the nation's leading biomass energy firms.

"We're probably No. 4 or 5 in the country right now, but we want to be the largest," says Hugh Smith, president and CEO of Greenleaf Power LLC.

Given what Greenleaf has done in short order in the comparatively young biomass power industry, Smith's words don't come off as an idle boast.

From small, modern-looking offices at Capitol Avenue and 26th street, Greenleaf Power owns and operates four California-based biomass power plants – which burn organic, mostly plant-based, materials to produce electricity.

The most recent purchase came last month as it acquired the Tracy Biomass plant in San Joaquin County. Along with biomass power plants in Humboldt, Lassen and Riverside counties, Greenleaf's facilities generate a combined 120 megawatts of power – enough to meet the needs of more than 70,000 homes.

Electricity output at the four plants is sold wholesale under contracts with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the Imperial Irrigation District.

Privately held Greenleaf's anticipated annual revenue this year: About $80 million.

Smith said management staff in Sacramento has grown from two to nearly a dozen in less than three years.

Not bad for a company that was launched in a Chicago suburb in 2010.

And here's a bonus for local public officials weary of complaints about California's anti-business climate.

Greenleaf Power really wants to be here.

The company's startup in Westmont, Ill., in 2010, was backed by private equity firm Denham Capital Management LP. Before that year was out, however, Greenleaf was Sacramento-bound.

"Sacramento has many things we like," Smith said. "It's affordable, it's close to the power facilities we're interested in, it has a good airport, it's centrally located in the state and it's home to important policymakers.

"Sacramento has been great for us."

Smith readily concedes that the biomass power industry has a small piece of the nation's energy pie – biomass accounts for about 1.5 to perhaps 2 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, according to most estimates – and it doesn't get the attention of other alternative power sources, including solar, wind and geothermal.

However, Smith claims that his company has been on a consistent growth track, and its efforts to produce power with more than 1.3 million tons of combustible biomass material has had a profound green effect in the Golden State.

"We're producing power with (material) that otherwise might be burned or go to waste," Smith said.

Essentially, Greenleaf subcontracts up and down the state to scoop up waste material and transport it to power facilities.

That includes California forests, where treetops, stumps, branches and other forest materials are obtained.

It includes farmers, whose harvests leave all manner of agricultural waste for Greenleaf's biomass plants.

"Even grapes have skins and pits," Smith said. "You'd be surprised how many materials we get from orchards and agricultural lands."

Urban waste is another source of biomass material. That includes wood products from torn-down buildings and construction sites. Wood material has to be clean. Greenleaf's biomass plants won't accept plywood, treated lumber or painted wood.

Recyclers also are a primary source of biomass material, and consumers can drop off green waste at Greenleaf's four power plants.

"Besides the green benefits, it's consistent, reliable production of power," Smith said. "We're a dispatchable resource. It's there for utilities when they need it."

Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for the Folsom-based California Independent System Operator, which operates the state's wholesale electricity transmission grid, agrees.

"It is steady. You don't have fluctuations, and it performs great. It's a steady source of electricity for us," she said. "And since you're dealing with landfill product, it's kind of a win-win all the way around."

During last week's triple-digit heat wave, the ISO's website tracking renewable energy sources within the ISO grid showed biomass holding pretty much rock-steady at around 400 megawatts.

Biomass has also grown in popularity among utilities trying to diversify their energy sources.

"We have a diverse renewable energy portfolio and continue to build upon it," said Denny Boyles, a spokesman for PG&E, which has contracts to buy electricity from three Greenleaf power plants. "Californians deserve a clean and affordable energy future."

Still, not everyone is sold on the green benefits of biomass.

Biomass power plants have come under fire from some environmentalists for creating air pollution – carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and various particulates.

The biomass industry counters that biomass-produced energy is "carbon-neutral," because the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is recovered by the growth of new biomass product – which is not true of hydrocarbon fuels from underground.

Smith pointed to the carbon-neutral argument and insisted that "we're making efficient use of (biomass) materials that otherwise are underutilized."

He also said his company has reduced in-state air pollution created by past burning of rice shucks in California farm fields. Greenleaf collects and transports the rice crop byproduct from thousands of acres.

The biomass industry also points to recent advances in building greener power plants. Smith said Greenleaf's Honey Lake power plant near Susanville utilizes a geothermal energy source.

Environmentalists also have argued that whole-tree harvesting in forests can deprive the soil of key nutrients. Smith countered that forest materials Greenleaf gathers might otherwise be burned, a potential air pollution or wildfire problem.

The 55-year-old Smith believes environmental concerns directed at the biomass power industry will be eased with development of more efficient plants.

He's predicting future growth for Greenleaf, with more plant acquisitions in the future "and not just in California."

He added: "We're excited about the industry … And we're excited about being here in Sacramento. We're glad we made the selection we did."

GREENLEAF POWER LLC AT A GLANCE

Founded: Backed by private equity firm Denham Capital Management LP, it launched in Westmont, Ill., in 2010, then announced it was moving to Sacramento. Location: 2600 Capitol Ave.

Business plan: A provider of power via facilities using biomass material as fuel, selling the electricity output at wholesale under contracts with two utilities – Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the Imperial Irrigation District.

Employees: About 120, with about a dozen managers in its Sacramento headquarters and more than 100 at four biomass facilities in California. The company says another 460 workers serve it through biomass materials gathering, processing and delivery.

Biomass power facilities: Desert View in Mecca (Riverside County), Eel River south of Eureka (Humboldt County), Honey Lake in Wendel (Lassen County) and Tracy Biomass near Tracy (San Joaquin County).

Power numbers: The four company facilities re-use more than 1.3 million tons of combustible biomass material annually and generate a combined 120 megawatts of power – enough to meet the needs of more than 70,000 homes.

Annual revenue: About $80 million.

Fast fact: Greenleaf bills itself as one of the nation's largest biomass companies, plus the largest and fastest-growing one in California.

More information: www.greenleaf-power.com or (916) 596-2500. Greenleaf Power, Bee research

Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mark Glover



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