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Grant to promote basin biomass

Patrick McCartney

The U.S. Department of Energy has announced a $75,000 grant to study the possible conversion of brush and overstocked trees in the Tahoe Basin into energy.

The Western Regional Biomass Energy Program awarded the money to the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District to examine how to develop surplus basin biomass into a long-term asset. The grant also will help subsidize a short-term program this summer to haul waste wood from the Tahoe Basin to a co-generation plant in Loyalton.

The possible use of biomass to produce energy and other products is part of a basinwide push to find ways to reduce the cost of mechanically thinning Lake Tahoe’s secondary-growth forests. Mostly clear-cut in the 19th century to supply wood to the mines of the Comstock Lode, Tahoe’s forests have grown back during a century of fire suppression, resulting in a dangerously dense forest that is vulnerable to disease and drought.

With little interest by timber companies in the basin’s forest health projects, public agencies have looked elsewhere for money to thin the forests and create defensible corridors around urban areas. Finding a market for thousands of tons of brush and wood chips would reduce the high cost of restoring the basin’s forests to a condition that prescribed fires could maintain.

“Adding value is the key, whether for electricity or other products,” said Suzanne Pearce of the conservation district. “There is no one solution; we have to look at a lot of little solutions.”

The U.S. Department of Energy grant will be matched by $151,000 in services from Sierra Pacific Power Co., Sierra Pacific Industries, the Nevada Energy Department, Neos Corp. and the conservation district.

A majority of the money will go toward a “green power” pricing study, a market survey of customer interest in green power and an upgrade of transmission lines.

“The study will determine if people are willing to pay a penny or two more per kilowatt for green power,” Pearce said.

A portion of the funding also will subsidize the hauling of wood debris this summer to Loyalton, to be turned into electricity at Sierra Pacific Industries’ co-generation plant.

Transporting the green waste 70 miles to Loyalton would be prohibitively expensive without the subsidy, said Don Kornreich, president of the conservation district’s board of supervisors. Each trip costs $25 a ton.

Kornreich said the grant will allow the Forest Service to ship a portion of the slash and underbrush from this summer’s North Shore project to Loyalton.

But a subsidy is undesirable in the long run, and the energy department grant will bring Tahoe Basin forest managers one step closer to using portable co-generation plants to dispose of wood waste on site. Such generators could convert 50,000 tons of bone-dry wood a year into 6 megawatts of energy, which would be fed into the surrounding power grid.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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