Biomass would help decrease fire danger, and heat high school, too |

Biomass would help decrease fire danger, and heat high school, too

A biomass boiler like this one would consume up to 2,200 tons of forest waste annually in helping reduce the threat of a wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and provide heating at South Tahoe High School.

The idea of turning thousands of tons of forest waste into heat for South Tahoe High School is a step closer to reality thanks to a $243,500 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

The grant would pay for half the cost of a biomass boiler at the school, which can convert chipped forest material into heat and energy. If implemented for the 2007-08 school year, the biomass boiler would be the first for a California public school – and proponents of the idea say it would help reduce the threat of a catastrophic wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“No one has done a project like this in California,” said Steve Morales, district facilities manager for Lake Tahoe Unified School District.

With an annual 25,000 tons of forest waste in the basin, including debris such as branches and pine needles, the fuel is there to propel a wildfire. Politicians including Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., have pushed for the reduction of forest fuels with environmental agencies signing on.

“There is a lot of interest in this and the facts are Tahoe is going to save a bunch of money putting this in,” said Bruce Goines, U.S. Forest Service biomass utilization coordinator for the Pacific Southwest region.

Morales said a biomass facility could consume as much as 2,200 tons of chipped material from forest waste each year. Although it represents only 9 percent of total annual forest waste, many say it’s better than nothing in protecting a pristine lake and communities with few evacuation routes out of the basin.

Hurdles remain. Permits from El Dorado County Air Quality Management Board and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency must be obtained, followed by a bidding process. Lastly, a supplier has to be found to deliver the forest waste in bulk. And that’s what worries Rex Norman of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The technology of biomass is doing great, but it’s the supply chain, the system, that has to be built,” said Norman, a spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

“We’ve got the fuel. We’ve got the technology. It’s what’s in between that’s the problem,” Norman said. “It’s the access to the material and a reliable supply chain.”

Entrepreneurs should take note. Apart from the school district moving forward with its biomass proposal, Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz has stated his priority of putting a biomass plant near Tahoe City.

While it would not eliminate the use of prescribed burns, Norman said a biomass facility would help in creating defensible space around homes and businesses. Fire agencies urge people to clear wood and other burnable materials from a building’s perimeter.

If granted, an expansion of the school’s boiler system would be needed. Morales said the current heating system, which uses natural gas to produce steam, is nearing its life expectancy of 40 years, so a new one would have to be purchased as a backup to the biomass.

The biomass system would pay for itself in fuel-cost savings in an estimated eight years.

Storage facilities for the forest chips also would be needed.

The grant was part of more than $4 million from the U.S. Forest Service to businesses and other agencies to help reduce the cost of fuels management.

About 50 facilities around the nation use biomass technology, Goines said. Health risks and other assessments have been completed for the Tahoe facility with no real health risks being revealed.

There will be no plume of smoke and chips are burned to a fine ash, Morales said.

“It’s an extremely complete combustion process,” Morales said.

Goines said the South Lake Tahoe facility could be a demonstration site for others. Once the biomass boiler is in place, Goines expects others in California to quickly follow suit.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge, but we always felt if this can be successful in the Lake Tahoe Basin, with its level of visibility, we can be successful in other communities in California,” Goines said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at

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