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Biomass decision on hold as Forest Service opens second phase of 4FRI

A contractor works at the Isham Task Order work site in Kaibab National Forest in December 2018. The U.S. Forest Service has recently announced the opening of the RFP for Phase 2 of 4FRI. (KNF/photo)

A contractor works at the Isham Task Order work site in Kaibab National Forest in December 2018. The U.S. Forest Service has recently announced the opening of the RFP for Phase 2 of 4FRI. (KNF/photo)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) voted July 10 against requiring Arizona Public Service Company to file a request for proposals to convert the Cholla Power Plant in St. Johns to a biomass bioenergy facility.

The same day, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was opening up a request for proposals for Phase 2 of the Four-Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

The ACC voted 3-2 against requiring APS to move forward with a plan to convert the coal plant to a plant that would burn biomass for energy, although the commission left it open for APS to move forward on its own with the plan.

Chairman Bob Burns, Commissioner Justin Olson and Commissioner Sandra Kennedy voted against requiring APS to continue, however, Commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson and Commissioner Boyd Dunn voted for requiring APS to move forward.

Before the vote, Dunn said he was aware that the APS proposal was not adequate for several commissioners, but said he felt that voting against the proposal would send the wrong message to people.

“My concern is the message it sends out, from my perspective, is that we are still not open to proposals,” he said. “It has been so hard to just get one response over these years to deal with these issues.”

Bioenergy as a solution?

In December 2018, the ACC adopted a policy for utilities to consider the role of forest biomass as a renewable-energy source in Arizona. In March of this year, APS informed the ACC that it was evaluating the feasibility and cost of converting the Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City from coal to biomass.

In May, APS determined the Cholla plant was a good option for converting forest biomass into bioenergy, estimating it would take $135 to $205 million for the conversion, and $2.5 million for initial engineering studies.

The conversion would add 83 megawatts of power to the grid and restore approximately 30,000 acres annually.

However, in the proposal, the cost of converting the Cholla plant would be borne by APS ratepayers, which several commissioners believed unnecessary.

Commissioners responses

“The policy said at little to no cost, and that was not what I heard today,” Kennedy said at the July 10 meeting. “I’m fine if APS wants to go out on its own and come back with another alternative, I’m sure there are other alternatives out there.”

Olson said he was not comfortable with the proposal and the timing was not right for a vote since the commission had just heard of the presolicitation notice for Phase 2 of 4FRI.

“We should wait and see what solutions are brought forward,” Olson said. “There may be innovative solutions that none of us have considered that will create a solution for the biomass.”

Olson suggested waiting to see the results of the RFP and allow the commission to reevaluate whether the APS proposal was an appropriate process to undertake.

“If that is the appropriate process to clear the biomass through generating electricity, then we should have a discussion with our partners in the state legislature who have the authority to spend state funds on general appropriations,” he said. “They can do that even without raising taxes.”

Phase 2 of 4FRI

During the July 10 ACC meeting, 4FRI Chief Executive Jeremy Kruger announced the forest service had just opened a presolicitation notice for Phase 2 of 4FRI, and that the RFP would open August 8.

“It is official, we are moving forward with one of the largest contracts for forest restoration in Forest Service history,” he said. “This will be one of the largest stewardship contracts ever to be issued by the agency and the first to take advantage of our new 20-year stewardship authority. These new contracts are expected to greatly increase the pace and scale of restoration.”

Forest restoration stakeholders, state officials and other entities have been eagerly awaiting the release of the Phase 2 RFP to help accelerate thinning in Arizona forests.

In May, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) said she was dissatisfied with the Forest Service’s progress in efforts to restore Arizona forests and released a statement urging forest officials to open the second phase of 4FRI soon.

“Phase 2 RFP offers the Forest Service an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and get 4FRI back on track,” she said in a prepared statement.

The Forest Service’s presolicitation contained new details from the RFP, including actual boundaries and acreage that will be available.

The performance area is a portion of the overall 4FRI project area. At full production, the contract holder will seek to mechanically thin between 605,000 and 818,000 acres over 20 years in Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests

The 20-year contract includes 374,000 acres in Williams, which equates to 18,700 acres per year.

Other areas under Phase 2 include: 50,000 acres in Black Mesa, 230,000 acres on the Mogollon Rim, 38,000 acres in Sierra Anchas, 100,000 acres in Upper Tonto and 26,000 acres in Tusayan.

The RFP requires detailed technical, financial and business proposals from bidders that demonstrate understanding of the available wood supply, biomass treatments and the project area’s physical and economic operating conditions.

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