unedited nov tahoe mt news story:
By Kathryn Reed
Ridding forests of hazardous fuels and creating less reliance on natural gas are what a biomass boiler at South Tahoe High School could do. The problem is the fine particles it would produce could create air pollution and health problems.
That’s the quandary officials are finding themselves in as they decide if installing a biomass boiler at the school is feasible environmentally, economically and health-wise.
The outcome of a Nov. 5 meeting was supposed to be a final decision – build it or don’t. Instead, reps from the school district, consultants for the district, U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, El Dorado County Air Quality Management District, the county supervisor and Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign members will reconvene next month.
“By the end of the meeting most people’s attitude was to see if there is a way to make this project work in the current codes of the respective agencies,” said Steve Morales, facilities director for Lake Tahoe Unified School District. “The difficulty remains that it’s on a school site. We need to make sure it’s a health risk-free project.”
It would be the first biomass boiler on a California school campus. The location, size, structure it’s housed in and moisture content of the slash all play into the decision.
At this month’s meeting the group decided to run a health risk analysis on emissions from a biomass boiler, initiate a California Environmental Quality Act study and begin the TRPA permitting process.
The idea is that slash piles from the area would be hauled to the school, it would be burned in a boiler and the steam created would provide heat to the school.
Morales estimates the district could save about $125,000 a year on natural gas bills with the boiler.
However, the remaining $290,000 of the $330,000 federal grant is not enough to build the system. Morales said it could cost $1.2 million to install the boiler. But the district could break even in about 10 years.
The initial expenditures have been for consultant and engineer studies and some permitting. Plus, there’s the expense of transporting the wood to the school
“We definitely support researching more development of biomass opportunities in Lake Tahoe,” said Julie Regan, TRPA spokeswoman. “There are too many burn piles for the amount of burn days we have available at Lake Tahoe because of the weather. We have a great opportunity to enhance the economic development through reusing wood material in arts and crafts.”
She pointed to areas along the North Coast and in the Pacific Northwest where artists turn scrap wood into art and suggested there is a market for the same thing here.
An irony is that burning slash piles clearly pollutes the air and drops particles into the lake. But it does thin the forest and reduces the threat of a wildfire while also making the forest healthier. A biomass facility can have the same negative impacts, but produces energy. A co-generation plant can produce electricity.
But biomass facilities are expensive to build and come with a ton of regulations. And once the forest is thinned, the annual supply of slash for the plant is minimal.
That’s one reason Mark Johnson of Golden Sierra Power in South Lake Tahoe has proposed a mobile biomass system. His company is all about renewable energy.
He said he was supposed to go before the bi-state fire commission this month to talk about his ideas, but the meeting was canceled. The December agenda was not out as of press time.
The Forest Service is a proponent of biomass, but realizes the debris and the end-user need to be fairly close to make it work. Spokesman Rex Norman said about one-third of the wildland interface is accessible by road.
“Building new roads would be contrary to water quality,” Norman said. “That’s not to say any of these things is insurmountable. There may be ways material could be brought out where there are not any roads, through a conveyor system or light on land vehicle systems.”
The basin has plenty of wood to supply any biomass boiler – 60,000 acres still need to be treated. About 13,000 acres have been treated by modern standards.
“Private industry is the one who is going to have to find end uses and networks and transportation systems to make it possible,” Norman said of biomass technology. “It will help in the long term, but if you wait to use that as a major solution, we will probably be waiting 20 years and there are going to be fires here.”