Applying the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ proverb for dead and dying trees across the Truckee/North Tahoe region is increasingly difficult when it comes to catastrophic wildfire preparation — because there’s not a lot of places to put them.
As agencies and organizations across the Western U.S. push for defensible space and the thinning out of crowded forests, options for disposing of green waste locally include burn piles or trucking the material, sometimes as far as 100 miles away.
The Eastern Regional Landfill is a stopping point for most of the excavated woody biomass, but it’s expensive, even more so than solid waste (green waste costs $15 per cubic yard to sort; mixed solid waste costs $11.25 per), and it can’t stay long due to limited space. After being sorted and processed, material is trucked out to a few possible locations: most goes to the Rio Bravo-Rocklin and Honey Lake Power electrical generation facilities, or Full Circle Compost in Minden, Nevada, and/or to the Lockwood Landfill in far eastern Sparks.
“The stuff we’re pulling out of the forest is either going to burn in a burn pile or in distant cogeneration facilities to produce electricity and heat, or it’s going to rot in Nevada in landfill or compost; otherwise, if left unmanaged, it’s going to go up in a wildfire and take out the entire forest along with it,” said Mike Staudenmayer, general manager at Northstar Community Service District.
NCSD and a number of other area agencies are working to create multiple closer-to-home and energy-efficient uses for the wildfire kindling, or woody biomass, littering forest floors and made all the worse by extended drought and bark beetle infestation. The focus: biomass facilities that turn green waste into electricity or heat for local structures.
“Our goal is to establish a local biomass market, which will provide regional benefits including control of biomass disposal, potential reduced costs to residents, and alleviate the region from the volatile biomass market,” said Jared Deck, program manager over environmental engineering for Placer County.
“There is a sense of urgency, and rightly so, to try to reduce these hazards or prevent these hazards from taking shape,” echoed Jason Gibeaut, fire chief for Northstar Fire Department. “Any way we can increase the size and scope, the pace and scale, and yet keep it economically viable or more cost effective while also protecting the environment, that is why I’m in favor of the biomass facility. And that’s why I know that many of my counterparts or my colleagues who are serving as fire chiefs for other fire departments in our protection districts in our region are in favor of it.”
A guiding Northstar
At the forefront of effort is NCSD, with plans in motion to construct a wood energy facility by 2025 — a 6,000-square-foot structure next to the NCSD headquarters housing two 1-megawatt boilers and associated equipment.
NCSD provides governmental services such as water, sewer collection, fire protection, recycling, and more to the residences nestled at the feet of Northstar California Resort. The district, which has overseen forest-fuels management efforts since 2008 and burns anywhere from 250 and 1,000 piles of dry brush and dead trees a year, implemented Measure U in 2021. The measure is meant to improve local wildfire prevention with $450,000 in parcel tax annually for 10 years. The wood energy facility is another milestone in their sizable efforts.
With a biomass system in place, instead of being trucked outside the region, 3,800 bone-dry tons (BDT) of woody fuel (roughly 5 acres, 30 feet tall) would be processed annually in the facility, where it would be transformed into thermal heat for 14 buildings in the Northstar community. Ultimately, 99% of the average thermal demand from the connected facilities would be provided for.
“Our proposal is to put in this infrastructure at zero cost to the end customer,” Staudenmayer said. “Zero cost. They don’t take on the ownership or operation of any new infrastructure or assets. It’s all done through the district. We own and operate it … If we’re not providing them heat or not getting them enough heat, their existing system kicks in.”
The remaining byproduct, between 140 and 260 tons of ash annually from the combustion of woody biomass, would be delivered to Sierra Valley farms or agriculture locations for soil use, or to a landfill if the former can’t take any. The potential to utilize ash in concrete production in the place of Portland cement is also being explored.
It’s a system with a fuller circle than in other parts of the country producing biomass energy.
“Back East they actually are going into the forest for the sole intent to mine the wood for these plants,” Staudenmayer said, adding that in the Southeast, whole forests are grown with the intent to fuel biomass facilities in Europe. Contrarily, “we’re going into the forest to keep us from burning down and to restore it to healthy state.”
The full project is expected to cost $8.5 million, $3.5 million of which has already been acquired through grants. Ideally, the facility will eventually pay for itself through user costs, who will pay a price similar to natural gas costs.
Current trajectory puts NCSD staff and consultant PR Design & Engineering completing the California Environmental Quality Act documentation, land planning, and air quality permitting this August. After that comes focus on fundraising and contracts to finetune fuels procurement and the energy sales process.
NCSD’s planned treatment of 3,800 BDT annually is a tiny slice compared to the scope and scale of the region’s need to treat forests — an estimated 100,000 BDT each year from a 40-mile radius of Truckee. Staff isn’t assuming it’ll be a solution in perpetuity, what with technology constantly advancing, but it’s an answer to a problem that can be implemented quickly.
“We’re looking at this as being a 20- to 25-year project horizon,” Staudenmayer said. “… We’re in a position where in the future other technologies could make it obsolete, which could be the case, but over a 20-year period, we’re pretty confident this solution makes a lot of sense.”
Meanwhile, off State Route 89
About 5 miles directly west of Northstar sits the regional landfill, owned by Placer County and operated by a private contractor. Staff is exhuming an onsite biomass facility idea that was first explored nearly a decade ago, with an environmental impact report on the Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility approved by the county board of supervisors in May 2013. The plant was originally proposed for Kings Beach, which many residents opposed in early 2012 and pushed for the relocation to Cabin Creek.
“The project is a 2-megawatt biomass-to-renewable energy project through a gasification system,” said Placer’s Deck. “Taking woody material from local defensible space clearing, chipping it, and putting it through a gasification system [which converts the material into a syngas], and creating energy out of it. The project can handle between 17,000 and 18,000 bone dry tons of biomass per year. All that would be sourced from Eastern Regional Landfill right there on site.”
(Gasification is different from NCSD’s plan, which uses hot water boilers to combust wood chips and then a thermal energy distribution pipeline to connect to existing heating systems. It is a less expensive process than gasification.)
Electricity was (and still is) the planned end-product out of Cabin Creek, with a 11,000-square-foot and two-story tall facility located on the ERL site to be used to power buildings at the landfill, as well as the county’s eventual zero-emissions bus fleet nearby. Excess electricity would be sent to the community grid, some heat also created through the process.
In early 2017, however, efforts stalled after Liberty Utilities decided against purchasing the would-be energy created by the would-be plant. Concern had manifested amid a historically low market demand for energy and closure of biomass-to-energy facilities. The board shelved the idea.
Last year, with approval from the board, county staff moved forward with “reinvestigating the feasibility of the project,” Deck said. “The dynamic of the communities toward forest health has changed quite a bit. The amount of green waste coming to our facilities has gone up dramatically. From 2017 to 2019, it’s doubled from about 100,000 cubic yards to 200,000 cubic yards [annually — and has been above 200,000 annually for the past few years], and that’s really driven by all the defensible space clearing, forest management projects, and utility clearing associated with reducing catastrophic wildfires in the region.”
The Camp, Caldor, and Mosquito fires were just some of impetus-drivers for the increase in green waste coming to the Eastern Regional Landfill and biomass facilities across California. While the influx was happening, Deck explained, there weren’t enough outlets to handle the green waste. The landfill’s exports were getting increasingly passed along amid crowded competition and decreases in payment for the biomass being delivered. Now, however, the economic model for installing such a facility has flipped: The rise in green waste, the ability to set its own price for receiving such material, plus a massive decrease in transportation distance means the county could make money from the plant.
With a shovel-ready project waiting in the wings, Deck said that conversations with Liberty Utilities have resumed: “We’re actually working with them currently to understand what that agreement would look like in today’s environment for them. That’s our main option [for excess energy], working with them to sell renewable energy back to the local grid and community where the biomass was produced.”
The project clocks in at $20 million — more expensive than NCSD’s because of increased size and the gasification method. If everything goes perfectly, the Cabin Creek biomass facility could be up and running by the end of 2024/25.
All together now
Placer County is currently chasing grants, like NCSD, but unlike other competitive fields, here it’s being done hand in hand. In fact, there’s a regional task force concentrated on biomass funding efforts: the North Tahoe Truckee Biomass Task Force, created in August 2022.
Placer and Nevada counties, the Town of Truckee, NCSD, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, and some fire protection districts make up the force.
“We actually are working on finalizing an [Memorandum of Understanding] between all the parties within the biomass task force,” Deck said. “Stepping back and looking at a regional approach to biomass, understanding how much annual yield of biomass is sustainable from the region, how that biomass could support establishing multiple biomass facilities, and then working together to establish a regional biomass distribution network to those facilities between the partners. Within this model, each agency is still working on its individual project, but as a region we are pushing a collective vision forward together.”
The NCSD and Cabin Creek biomass projects each received grants from Cal Fire, the state agency noting that such unification out of a smaller region was one of the main reasons both received funding. Placer has additional internal monetary sources like general fund or reserves to access as well.
A third biomass facility is being explored by the Town of Truckee, Truckee Tahoe Airport District, Truckee Donner Public Utility District, and Truckee Fire Protection District.
Though construction of this facility isn’t yet a foregone conclusion. The town is working through a feasibility study with a consultant, Wildephor Consulting Services, expected to be complete in September or October, at which point it’ll come to the town council for discussion and direction.
Staudenmayer said it is critical for all parties to come to the table: “This problem is too big for just the fire and water agencies to solve. All of us in the [wildland urban interface] have a responsibility to participate in mitigating the threat of wildfire.”
And Truckee Town Manager Jen Callaway is aware of the potential. “No one biomass facility is going to solve the issue … multiple facilities is the answer,” she said. “We want to contribute.”