Sierra Biomass Corp

Taking Control of Our Future Before It’s Gone 04311

The snow in the mountains is slowly waking to trickle and roar down to the valleys, and the grasses are surging up wherever the sun hits the earth.  As concerns over road conditions and firewood reserves pass, we know it won’t be long  before our attention will turn to the mountains, and by August the drying brush and overburden of small trees will consume our worry.

Experts disagree on what the proper ratio of understory to mature trees, and the distance and size of mature trees.  Even so, you don’t have to be too familiar with the forests of Northern California to know that the mountains in Sierra County are mostly over-loaded with fuel. 

Hazardous fuel removal is doing with people and machines what nature would do with fire and shade.  It means going in, removing smaller trees and understory and chipping for spread or to be hauled to a cogen plant.

Recently, this work has been done by the Forest Service on FS land, by private parties out of pocket or through funding such as the National Resource Conservation Service, or by the Fire Safe and Watershed Council. 

However, funding for this kind of work is drying up.  The SCFSWC met Friday, April 1 to assess the likelihood of future funding.  The Council has worked hard to make the most of available funding, picking out high risk areas and seeking funding to do hazard fuel removal.  There is a continuing effort to find funding to do the most difficult parts of the county, those in the Yuba River Canyon, where brush and hardwoods grow well, and the slopes are steep.

The Prospect has reported in the past on efforts to get Highway 49 cleared so that in the event of a fire people wouldn’t be trapped in late summer tourist traffic in the flue-like canyon.  It isn’t as simple as having a crew go out and cut down the trees and brush along the road, there are environmental studies to be done, right of way entitlements to be established, and land owners to be contacted.  Even this simple, essential task is expensive and time consuming.

Likewise, the Forest Service has to follow NEPA rules, and has to find a market for the products the fuel removal creates.

That product, biomass, is the focus of any fuel reduction process.  The products can be burned; chipped and scattered; or sent to a processing facility to be made in to fiber, or energy.

The process of turning biomass into energy and energy into money to do more hazard fuel removal consumes the discussion of many local people and agencies.  The County Board of Supervisors has already come on board in favor of promoting biomass energy.  Jim Turner, who runs the SPI cogen plant, has assembled a staggering amount of knowledge about biomass utilization, and is supportive of any sustainable effort to turn potential wild fires in to jobs.  The Sierra County Fire Safe and Watershed Council Board has discussed ways to fund a contract for key biomass handling equipment.

At the heart of the biomass discussion, and the heart of solving our hazard fuel and joblessness problems, lies in water and air.  The ideal biomass system for the county would start with a way to dry and compact biomass for shipping. 

Carbon is what is desired, the carbon stored in the wood.  Hauling a load of fluffy green biomass to the cogen plant will cost more carbon, and so more money, than it will produce. 

Chipping is a good way to compact and dry biomass, but it works best with clear, brittle wood, and lease well with the leafy material and green twigs.  If the biomass could be chipped, piled, dried and then loaded on the truck and taken to market, the carbon trade off between handling and production improves.

But, chipping is time consuming, and chippers cost money to maintain. 

Another solution would be a baling unit which would crush and bale small trees and brush and deposit the bale on a self-loader which could load them on trucks. There are such machines, but they are expensive and work best on certain kinds of biomass.


Biomass handlers



Baling up biomass, from here

The cost of transporting the material could be offset with biofuel or biogas.  A more expensive and time consuming process creates a liquid fuel; a cheaper process creates a gas which is injected into the truck’s engine to reduce the diesel used.

The greatest problem behind transporting biomass is Sierra Pacific Industries, owner of the Loyalton Cogen plant.  Given SPIs spotty reliability, it’s difficult to imagine a business who would want to depend on the plant.  The plant is old, and not very efficient, but it would suffice to be the heart of a growing industry if it could be kept beating.

It’s pretty clear that we must find a way to fund hazard fuel removal, or we’ll watch the mountains we love burn, and fear for our lives and homes in the late summer and fall. 

It has already been suggested by Tim Beals, Director of Public Works, that a coordinator position be considered to further biomass, but the role of county government in creating an industry isn’t clear.  The Fire Safe and Watershed Council sees the need, but its mandate doesn’t include starting businesses, and there is simply no funding available to do the job.  Local contractors have expressed the desire to participate, but there is no fountain of cash there, either.

If this were a Third World nation, the residents of the county might take in on themselves to start a corporation to deal with the hazard fuel/biomass problem.   Such a corporation would hire a person to find seed money through the USDA.  They would be familiar with the process of converting biomass to electricity and motor fuel, and would come to be on a first name basis with major area players like Plumas Sierra Rural Electrification. 

They would build consensus with the biomass producers and would know which of the growing number of containerized cogen and biofuel plants available would be appropriate for our area. 

They would eventually build a coalition to start the process of converting hazard fuel into a viable carbon product.

There are people of great vision in the county.  Won’t one of them step forward to rally resources for our future?

Would you be willing to give $100.00 to a nonprofit organization as seed money to get a biomass coordinator?  What is it worth to you to have the hazard fuel removed from the mountains and an industry in the county?

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