Green Energy Blues
I was talking with County supervisor Dave Goicoechea the other day about our biomass problem. The SPI cogen plant really isn’t much, it’s a steam powered bicycle generator by world generator standards, but it was the throbbing heart of a nascent industry in our county, one that reaches into our public and private forests to again create jobs, taxes, economic life.
What would it take to start the cogen plant or otherwise upgrade our biomass technology? Knowledge and an understanding of the situation would be a start. Skilled people. Community will and determination.
Dave commented on the experts we have working on our issue. Jim Turner is an SPI company man, but he’s also knowledgeable and quick to share that knowledge. Nobody is doing more to solve the problems of the cogen plant than he is. Bob Marshall from Plumas-Sierra Rural Electrification has been as helpful as he can be, given the business and regulatory constraints he’s under. Peter Huebner has been talking green trash everywhere he goes. The Fire Safe and Watershed Council has been active, particularly Mike Freschi and Cindy Noble, who have been beating the bushes for bushes. John Sheehan from the Plumas Corporation has been lending his expertise when possible. At this point, Goicoechea himself is becoming well versed in the world of biomass energy, and it’s clear there’s a right smart boy under them coveralls. He has handshakes all over Nevada and California, and he’s been shaking those hands until his palm steams. Politicians have sent emissaries, and SPI’s public face, Mark Pawlicki has been talking nice all around, but none of it is going anywhere.
The problem is that our bicycle generator is just out of our reach. There is a rumor that SPI has simply skimmed the fat from the contract with NV Energy and is now trying to ditch on the lean part of the contract. It is not known if this is true; Faye Andersen, spokesperson for NV Energy could not comment on the contract, as one would expect, and there is little point in posing the question to SPI. George Emmerson was recently paraphrased as saying "someone will reopen the cogen plant; it might not be SPI." To us, that sounds like "don’t worry, you’re a wonderful person, you’ll fall in love with someone else" which is also known as the "kiss off". That might be the important information we’ll get from SPI. They won’t say more, and why should they?
Even if we knew that information, it wouldn’t help much. The cogen plant seems to be isolated to Loyalton because of the way the grid works. A new owner that didn’t want to deal with NV Energy might try to put their own transmission line in, but that would be a nightmare of regulation, easements, engineering, and NIMBYs. It’s hard to tell if NV Energy is part of the problem or not. They surely do have their share of problems being a good citizen, particularly since, as the rumor goes, it was purchased and reorganized by Florida Light and Power. The Prospect didn’t verify that, but there’s little reason to doubt it. Power is a commodity, one we’ll pay dearly for in the cold dark of winter, and grids and power plants and "units" are bought and sold for profit. The cogen plant itself is not even a whole drop in NV E’s bucket, and our needs and wants aren’t on their map. Why should they be? Goicoechea summed it up: it isn’t reasonable to expect huge corporations who are having their own economic problems to act like social services for us.
It is sometimes satisfying to want to demonize NV E or SPI, but it’s a toxic and useless effort. In addition, there are not a few people in the county who would be glad to see SPI gone and someone else, someone more local, caring for the cogen plant and the mill property. There probably isn’t going to be someone like that. A lot of Plumas Sierra Rural Electric Coop users would like PSREC to buy the plant, but there might be regulatory and other problems with that. Further, PSREC has traditionally been careful to keep their scope focused; if buying a relatively isolated, somewhat small cogen plant is a gamble, they won’t do it, particularly if it isn’t directly relevant to their customers. It would be great; probably won’t happen.
Should we, the people of the county, try to buy it? At this point, I have doubts about the cogen plant as a local investment. It’s landlocked. It’s on complicated property. It made great sense when there was mill waste, but can it actually function under current conditions? Regardless our will to have the plant open, we don’t have the connections, the people, or the money to make it happen. Recent guesses at the plant’s value run about 14 million bucks. Rumor has it SPI would sell for 30 million. The difference is in the cost and value of permits, we’re told.
What will happen? There’s a chance that a recent effort, joined by the SC Board of Supervisors, will complicate the sale by NV Energy of 46,000 California units to a corporation owned by Algonquin Power. Algonquin has not answered Prospect questions, even when we claimed to be from the Sacramento Bee (journalism is not a job for sissies). If local agencies working through the Public Utilities Commission squeeze the sale, NV Energy might re-evaluate the cogen plant. Maybe the purchaser would also purchase the cogen plant. Maybe NV Energy will call B.S. on SPI and sue to force some kind of settlement which might see the cogen plant open. We’ve found cheap fuel for Red, maybe he can figure out how to make the plant break even; it’s worth more to SPI than anyone else. They could reopen, even if forced to by NV Energy, and claim to be concerned about our job base and green waste problems.
Maybe nothing will happen, maybe the cogen plant will rust, and we’ll watch as parts of it are hauled off, or the whole thing joins the other rusting, ominous hulks at the mill property. Maybe our carbon fuel will stay in the forests, as our kids move away and our remaining timber workers get old.
What can we do? There isn’t too much else we can do. In the weeks since the cogen plant closed, local people have organized biomass, and started conversations about infrastructure, and have sought funding for biomass utilization grants. A few people have done this.
What about the county as a whole? Goicoechea talked about that: "It would be nice if the community acted like they want to see the plant operate. Why isn’t there a ‘YIMBY’ movement here? Yes, in my back yard. I’m surprised more people aren’t involved, since this means so much to the county."
His point is a good one. We, all 3000 of us in the county, need the cogen plant to reopen. We have to have infrastructure to prove we have "green gold" in the Sierras. Wood is not as "energy dense" as oil, but even so, properly managed, our woods will never run out of fuel, we could run more cogen plants, if they would be built. Do we have to wait for the end of cheap oil for our fuel to have value? What can we do as a community?
If we weren’t individually and collectively so stinking broke we might undertake to create biomass infrastructure without the cogen plant. On the one hand, it’s risky to spend money developing a product for a market that doesn’t exist. On the other hand, biomass is all we have, and if we have a resource based future, that’s where it is. We should not wait until there’s a market to develop our infrastructure, because in a strong biomass market someone else will enter the county to set up infrastructure and use our carbon on their terms.
Yes, in my back yard? Can we residents of the county muster our energy to create a noticeable movement? Will the Booster and the Messenger join the Prospect in promoting our biomass, will the SC Economic Development Committee focus its energy on biomass jobs? Will the community resolve to work as a group toward our future?
Let’s see what happens.
Start by reading this short, 55 page document on transition communities. Our little county is perfect for that. While the document is written with a clear political slant, it also contains important information we can use. Interested in helping? Dedicate the effort to read it.
Energy from wood,HERE, is a cool site.
Photo from Green Car Congress
Honey Lake photo from HERE