Here’s an irony: A wood-burning power plant can help save the forest.

Certainly, the Novo BioPower facility between Snowflake and Heber will produce electricity — but it will also boost both forest restoration and the state’s watershed.

The power plant will produce energy from huge quantities of forest biomass, including trees, bark, branches, needles and even the roots.

Novo BioPower President Brad Worsley said, “What we’re using today, from top to bottom, is the lowest grade material that was historically used in the forest.”

Converted into solid, liquid, or gaseous biofuels, the biomass produces energy or fuel substitutes for transportation or industrial processes.

“We really do take the garbage,” he said. “We take the pine needles, the bark, the tips and limbs, and the pre-commercial timber. We gather them up in these big brush piles and we’re grinding it.”

The outcome is a brown/green dirty chip. “We take it because there just doesn’t seem to be any other viable place to take it,” Worsley said. “We’re really the only game in town as it relates to the removal of the low-value or no-value biomass.”

Power from wood scraps

Biomass power facilities harness the energy stored in organic materials to produce clean, renewable power. Biomass power plants burn this material under controlled, low-emissions conditions to generate electricity. Biomass energy can be generated by gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion or direct combustion.

In addition to diverting waste from already overburdened landfills, biomass facilities help reduce the release of greenhouse gases by preventing the decay of those tons of tree scraps from producing methane. Emissions of methane create 20 times more greenhouse gas effect than the CO2 produced during combustion.

Biomass to electrical power facilities are also considered carbon neutral when it comes to CO2 emissions. Burning the wood releases carbon stored short-term in the tree, rather than adding new carbon from long-stored sources like oil and coal. Furthermore, today’s biomass facilities have pollution control equipment to reduce other air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (“NOx”) that would otherwise escape into the air in a forest fire.

Novo BioPower's Engine Room - provided photo

Novo BioPower’s role

Novo BioPower sits on the site of a former paper recycling plant owned by Catalyst Paper Corp., which provided Snowflake with a portion of their biomass fuel in the form of paper sludge at no cost. Novo BioPower can burn up to 30 percent paper sludge by weight on a bone-dry basis, with the balance of the fuel coming from woody biomass.

“We use about 220 bone-dry tons (of biomass) annually, which is, with our average (annual) moisture of about 30 percent, about 300,000 green tons annually,” Worsley said. “That is roughly equivalent to about 15,000 acres each year that we’re able to thin.”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) hopes to eventually thin about 50,000 acres annually — but so far has thinned just 9,000.

Worsley said, “Because there is no other viable user of large-scale biomass, there’s this big problem. We have been an advocate for the expansion of biomass power, not because it’s the only use, but because it seems to be the most cost-effective use today.”

When Novo BioPower began operations in 2008, Worsley said they were considered a “bargain renewable energy provider.”

“Now we are expensive. Solar and other things have gotten their top price down to where they are competitive with natural gas and coal,” he said. “We’re in a situation in which we have to look at the whole value of the electron created — not only renewable electrons created, but the impact to watershed, forest health, economic impact, baseload or grid-stabilizing power.”

Also, unlike solar energy, biomass plants can run all night, Worsley said.

“We can put our power on 24/7, regardless if it’s windy, cloudy, light or dark,” he said. “Our battery storage is essentially in a wood chip, so we can dispatch that power anytime we burn it.”

Even with such around-the-clock capabilities, the Snowflake facility isn’t large enough. Worsley said the region needs a network of such power plants to handle the fuel load of the forests.

“Our facility is big enough to handle the biomass load off the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, but if you get out onto the Tonto, Coconino and Kaibab (national forests), there’s a need for expansion of this technology — at least in the short term.”

Prevention is key

Worsley added, “If we have a catastrophic forest fire, we’re going to spend 10 times more fighting it than had we just prevented it.”

That prompted Worsley to ask, rhetorically, "Wouldn’t we rather just pay a little bit more today to prevent (a fire) than pay a lot more later when we have to fight it?"

“We’ve burned a quarter of our national forests to the ground in Arizona in the last 15 years," he said. "We didn’t have a major catastrophic fire in Arizona this year — only because we got lucky.

“This pound of flesh is going to be taken, one way or another, whether it’s through federal taxes to pay for the $2 billion for firefighting in the western United States, or it’s water prices going up through SRP, or any number of other ways.”

Saving the watershed

Every acre of forest thinned produces 25 tons of round wood (logs). But thinning also produces 30 tons of biomass per acre — an enormous amount of dry fuel for a catastrophic wildfire to ignite.

“Forest restoration has several objectives; the mitigation of the risk of catastrophic fire is one of them,” Eastern Arizona Counties Organization Executive Director Pascal Berlioux said. “Fires burn so hot in the Southwest that they can destroy the topsoil and that prevents anything from growing back. This becomes a serious issue in monsoon season when the scorched soil washes away from the local watersheds into the rivers and reservoir systems.”

Once scorched soil and ash from wildfires reach lakes and rivers, the sediment contaminates the water supply — affecting not only rural communities, but also Phoenix and Tucson.

Removing the biomass before it burns remains the key to preventing all the downstream effects.

“In order to mitigate the risk of fire, we need to remove not only the logs, but the logging biomass as well,” Berlioux said.

“The challenge that we are facing right now is that the industry use for the logging biomass is at full capacity. This prevents the cleanup effort from being expanded to landscape scale. We need additional capacity to dispose up to 1.5 million tons of logging biomass every year.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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