May June, 2004





Recycling Waste Wood Into Electricity

Burney Forest Power together with Fruit Growers Supply help keep the area in jobs and energy

By Kurt Glaeseman

It may not sound like a glamorous role, but Burney Forest Power (BFP) is proud to be a successful bottom feeder on the wood food chain. BFP is one of three biomass plants operating an hour east of Redding, Calif., near the small town of Burney. This is ideal timber country, with an abundance of wood residue from logging, sawmills, thinning, and the occasional catastrophe like the Fountain Fire of 1992. Bob Allen, Fuel Supply Manager for the plant, helped develop BFP in 1989 and watched it grow to its present state of efficiency. “This biomass plant,” he says, “is a Forest Management Specialist’s dream-come-true.” The figures are remarkable. BFP burns on the average 65 truckloads of chips per day, producing 31 megawatts per hour for Pacific Gas and Electric. That’s enough electricity for 36 homes per month or 34 to 38 thousand homes per year. In a true cogeneration plant, a second viable product must be produced; in this case steam is sold to Shasta Green, the sawmill next door. Then of course there are still some valuable by-products like fly ash, which is sold as an amendment to neutralize acidic soil on nearby ranches. Even the bottom ash, which looks like coarse beach sand, is used for on-site road surfacing. According to Allen, the biomass concept became a reality as a result of the Public Utilities Regulatory Act of 1978. The federal government saw the need to diversify the energy base and encourage the big public utilities to purchase energy from smaller utilities like Burney Forest Power. Today PG&E buys all the BFP electricity, creating a stable market for the 14-yearold company.

Fuel Supply Manager Bob Allen at Burney Forest Power.

Feeding the Machine
Allen is always on the lookout for wood residue that can be turned into chips to feed the insatiable plant. Some is acquired from the neighboring sawmill in exchange for BFP-supplied steam, but most has to come from the forest. “Of course we don’t want sticks and dirt and rocks that clog up the machinery,” says Allen, “but if you have golf ball sized chips or smaller, bring them on.” Currently a large percentage of the chips come from thinnings on private land owned by Fruit Growers Supply (FGS). This large landowner has been a strong presence in the area for almost a century. Originally a supplier of wooden packing boxes for California fruit growers, the company found they had trouble getting lumber after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Rather than fight in the marketplace, the company simply went out and acquired vast tracts of timberland to ensure a source of box material. When wooden boxes were replaced with corrugated cardboard, Fruit Growers Supply simply changed their timber focus: They would produce big logs for the lumber market.

The company still owns about 20 thousand acres near Burney and about a half million acres spread out over California. The working relationship between BFP and FGS is a harmonious one. Daryl Conover, himself a Biomass Forester, represents FGS in the sale of chips. He and Allen oversee the ongoing annual contract between the two companies, and they coordinate production and transportation for their mutual benefit. The chips can be of any species, although they run heavy to pine and fir, as Conover prefers to leave oak stands for the wildlife. The primary source is from thinning, and Conover likes to see the small stuff, once burned as waste in the woods, chipped and hauled to BFP. His overall plan is to manage the forest for the harvest of sawmill logs: “When we thin, we hope we are cutting trees that would never have made merch logs.”

Conover sees the thinning process as an exact science, with some stands requiring a second and closer thinning as the trees mature. Both Allen and Conover stress the necessity of thinning to create a healthy forest, a forest without the excessive fuel ladders that allow a fire to rage out of control in the crowns of the trees. They both reference the fire scars left on trees on the south side of Burney. “The high school and the whole town was in danger of being engulfed,” explains Allen, “but because the woods just outside of town had been thinned and cleaned, the fire could be contained.”


A Win for the Environment and Community
Conover and Allen agree that the present system of turning “thinned” waste wood into chips and then hauling them to the co-gen plant has definite advantages for both the overall environment and the local community. Ageneralized master plan includes the following objectives:
• Reduce pollution from burning waste wood in the forest.
• Reduce fire hazards in clean or thinned forest tracts.
• Control tree density for maximum growth.
• Improve wildlife habitat.
• Improve water release and yields.
• Provide employment opportunities.
• Create a symbiotic relationship between timberland owners and producers of electricity.

And those goals have been attained:
• The smokestacks at Burney Forest Power are monitored on a daily basis, and pollution from them is almost nonexistent.
• Conover can show statistics to prove that carefully selected trees thrive better after a judicious trimming.
• Populations of deer, squirrels and several species of raptors are up. • Tracts that are closely monitored and worked can be simultaneously revised for drainage and erosion.
• The two entities provide major employment income to the Burney community.

Symbiotic Relationship
Twenty-six people are employed full time at BFP. FGS indirectly employs an even greater number of workers. In addition to regular employees, FGS contracts out some logging and thinning to area loggers who either bid or work from a solid past track record. Trucking the chips to the biomass plant is also by contract. Ten portable chippers are needed to keep BFP supplied, and each chipping side has eight to 12 associated employees—skidders, chippers, truck drivers, water truck operators— all of whom help spread the money out into the community. Most of the thinning is done in a more conventional manner. You might see a Timbco T425-D Hydro- Buncher and shears with a Quadco head. Conover likes the Timbco: “We can use it efficiently for certain specialized tasks.”

But he also likes to watch the smoothly operating Wolverine 3-Wheeler. Steep terrain is a factor in thinning…and ultimately in trucking the chips out. Some road grades are so steep a skidder is used to push the chip vans up to the side. And of course freezing and thawing and rain and snow all have an effect on getting the product out of the woods. But by and large, FGS tries to keep the chipping sides operating 12 months a year.

Staying Supplied in Chips
Burney Forest Power depends on FGS and other chip providers for a predictable and reliable source of fuel. Since BFP buys “bone dry” chips, the fuel providers have to schedule cutting and drying and chipping and hauling times to eliminate hauling excess moisture, for which they do not get paid. When a chip van arrives at BFP, a one-gallon sample is retained in a ziplock bag, and the contents are dried 18 hours at 200 degrees for moisture testing. If chips are not consumed immediately, they are stockpiled and moved so that older product is used first. Two “chip dozers” are kept busy pushing 5 cubic yard loads into feeding position. A visitor to BFP usually comments on the two line ponds, vaguely reminiscent of sawmill ponds from earlier logging history. The purpose of these ponds is simple: For the first 30 minutes of rainfall, the runoff water is collected and reprocessed or purified to prevent tannins and other contaminants from being discharged into the surface water of the area.

Morbark 50/48 chipper working with a CAT 515 (supplying logs)

BFP monitors water very carefully. Demineralized water is necessary for prolonged turbine life, and it is critical that a water test be conducted on every shift. Each shift requires three people to run the power house—a lead operator, a power plant utility operator, and a utility person who pushes fuel, takes care of ash, and does other tasks as required. The lead operator works from a complex control panel from which he can open or close all valves in the operation. He monitors the burning of the fuels and ensures that a graph showing the minute-by-minute state of air quality is recorded and backed up for future scrutiny. Even the most minute details of operation are important to BFP.

Wolverine 3-Wheeler works well on both flat and steep terrain.

For example, only 25 percent of non-renewable fuel can be used to start up and shut down the plant, and so far the company has not even come close to that limit. And thanks to the electrostatic precipitators, the stacks are emitting virtually no pollution. Residents of this forested community are pleased. The successful symbiotic relationship established between BFP and FGS demonstrates how once wasted thinnings from managed forestlands can help fuel the turbines for an electricity- hungry world. Perhaps energy is neither created nor destroyed, but it can certainly be regulated and released in harmony with enlightened forestry management.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004