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Talk of the Town: Biomass industry - A boon to county

On Nov. 15, 2016, a large group of policy makers, ranchers, industry leaders and others met to discuss local biomass extraction and potential uses during the All Hands, All Lands Conference held in Prescott. This event was initiated by the Upper Verde River Watershed Protection Coalition, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, and the Chino Winds and Triangle Natural Resource Conservation Districts. Speakers included State Senator Steve Pierce, State Forester Jeff Whitney, Senior Vice President of Arizona Department of Commerce Keith Watkins, local ranchers and land owners, and biomass industry business leaders, some of whom visited from across the country, to discuss uses and production methods for biomass products. The intent of these discussions is to establish a bio-mass industry in Yavapai County, which may result in a test case applicable to the Southwestern United States.

Biomass extraction consists of removing trees and other brush from the forest and other lands to be processed in a specific way to produce an energy source, agricultural products or commercial aromatics. One process includes chipping the fuel into small pieces and combining it with heat and adhesives to create small pellets or bricks for fire places and wood stoves. The pellets and bricks have an energy output comparable to coal, but are much cleaner when burned. Other products include bio-char (an agricultural product to enhance soil nutrients and water retention), and bio-coal which can be used in coal-fired power plants to greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Biomass extraction in Yavapai County could have many benefits which include: increasing the recharge of our aquifers (currently only 2% of overall rainfall reaches our aquifers due to run-off, evaporation, and retention in trees); reduce the likelihood of severe wildfires (there are 3 million acres of state trust land alone at high risk for wildfire), and supply various products for both local and international demand. Another benefit of extracting biomass is jobs creation. Each extraction job would create several more jobs related to shipping and processing the material for its final use. This would strengthen the local economy not only in the Quad Cities, but throughout Yavapai County. There are currently only 6,279 forest and paper product jobs in Arizona, which is disproportionately low compared to other economic sectors and the 3 million overall jobs in Arizona. Forest and logging specifically only has 363 jobs with the other nearly 6,000 jobs involved in producing and transporting the products. A recent economic analysis determined there is capacity for the biomass industry to grow in Arizona, with a local, national, and international market for these products. At the local level, Drake Cement located north of Paulden will voluntarily conduct a test burn of biomass products (extracted from local ranches and consisting primarily of pinyon/juniper) to determine if their coal furnaces can be supplemented efficiently and economically with this biomass fuel.

A study on woody biomass in Yavapai County conducted last spring by TSS Consultants determined there is an adequate supply of biomass in the county to satisfy a market now and into the future. According to their analysis, enough pinyon/juniper biomass exists to extract almost 25,000 bone-dry (after water extraction) tons per year. Federal lands account for 57% of the land identified for extraction, private land accounts for 26%, and the remainder is State Trust land. The supply exists, but the challenge is to create a supply chain capable of extracting, transporting, and delivering products to consumers at an economical price. In addition, it will require collaboration among federal and state agencies, and local land owners, to ensure this supply is continuously accessible for harvest.

Another challenge is to revise or eliminate state and federal laws and regulations which currently hinder the development of a biomass industry. For example, according to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), a NEPA assessment must be performed on the land prior to any extraction of biomass. This would involve the use of wildlife biologists, soils scientists, hydrologists, and botanists—a very costly and time consuming process. In addition, an archeological survey must be completed to rule out any historically significant sites or objects on the land. In order to extract any biomass from state trust lands, the group extracting the product must pay for any “resource” (biomass) it obtains, yet the current procedure of charging industry for a resource that is burned or left to decompose does not make sense when removing the resource benefits all parties.

In summary, there is a cooperative interest in seeing biomass extraction succeed in Yavapai County. A biomass industry would benefit our economy, provide products to fill national and international demand, reduce invasive vegetation that is harming grasslands and our aquifers, improve wildlife habitat, and decrease wildfire risk. This conference was a huge step in bringing the various interests together to discuss how to move forward with biomass extraction, and I expect this to be a basis for regional conversations going forward.

Mayor Harry Oberg,

Prescott