Biomass energy depends on guaranteed supply

In the midst of a two-day conference focusing heavily on proposed wind farm and solar arrays, Herb Hopper was quietly lobbying for a third type of renewable energy source: biomass power plants.

The thin, soft-spoken man wondered aloud during the Southwest Renewable Energy Conference what type of energy small communities rely on when the wind wasn’t blowing at night. For now, the answer is largely a dependence on coal plants and the Palo Verde nuclear reactor. But this didn’t sit well with Hopper, who works for Community Renewable Energy Resources. CRER is a community-based initiative of the Southwest Sustainable Forests Partnership and the Little Colorado River Plateau Resource Conservation and Development.

Hopper wants to use a variety of “feed stocks” to power small biomass plants that would generate between 3 to 10 megawatts of electricity. Sources include woody biomass from thinning projects in the national forest and on privately owned land, and municipal solid waste.

Hopper said the largest hurdle of establishing a biomass plant is identifying a continuos steam of organic waste to power the plant.

The irony that Hopper was making his case inside a city surrounded by national was not lost on him. Flagstaff could easily support a small biomass plant if the U.S. Forest Service would be willing to sign long-term contracts that provide small biomass plants with a continuous steam of organic waste.

He contends the current thinning projects waste not only a coveted fuel but also taxpayer dollars.

“We think that taxpayers will get tired of paying to thin the forest at $500 to $1,100 an acre,” he said.

He notes thinning projects leave behind wood waste that is too small to be harvested by the timber industry but will work well as a raw fuel source for biomass power plants.

“It is about this size,” Hopper told the crowd, forming a 1-inch circle with his thumb and index finger.

Hopper notes that biomass plants could serve a crucial function in many small towns in Arizona that are dependent on a sole source of energy.

“A lot of rural Arizona is on propane, not natural gas,” he said.

SemStream Arizona Propane, for example serves more than 1,300 customers in Page and about 7,700 customers in Payson, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Hopper concedes that putting together a model that can sustain the needs of a biomass power plant can be significant, estimating it costs between $2 million to $3 million per megawatt of a biomass plant.

He believes any community facility would need to stock up as well as identify a continuous steam of organic wastes in order to provide a constant energy source.

“If the city of Flagstaff wanted to build a facility, they are going to need to start hacking away tomorrow for the two to three years it will take to build that inventory,” Hopper said.

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