A plan to turn orchard wood into electricity drew questions Wednesday about whether it would help clear the air.
Backers said the plant, proposed for the Beard Industrial District in southeast Modesto, would cleanly burn wood that has long been torched in the open.
But Modesto resident Brad Barker said open burning has been almost entirely phased out by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
"It seems like we're solving a problem that may not exist," he said.
The comments came at a public hearing on the possible environmental effects of the plant, which would supply power to the Modesto Irrigation District.
The 33-megawatt plant would meet 8 percent of the MID's demand and help it reach a state mandate to get at least 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. The district stands at 12 percent, almost all of it wind, but could hit the target in a couple of years with wind additions and the wood plant.
The wood project is being planned by Stephen Endsley, a real estate investor and retired cardiologist in Modesto, and Bay City Boiler & Engineering Co. in Hayward. They hope to get a federal grant to cover 30 percent of the $85 million cost.
The Mariposa Road plant would burn wood removed from nut and fruit orchards during pruning or replacement of the trees. The wood would come from within a 50-mile radius.
Phil Reese, an environmental consultant on the project, said the plant would emit only 2 percent of the pollution that open burning produces.
"Open-field burning is a phenomenally ineffective and inefficient way of combusting wood," he said.
In response to Barker, Reese said some open burning could continue to be allowed under exemptions to the air district's phase-out.
The district staff noted that the plant would displace fossil fuels, which are considered major culprits in the carbon dioxide emissions believed to be causing climate change. Trees are a "carbon-neutral" source because they absorb this gas from the atmosphere while growing, the staff said.
A group called Sustainable Action Modesto has said the wood supply could fall short, which could force the operators to use other fuels that could have an impact on the environment. The project planners said the plant would use only a small part of the available wood.
The MID board is scheduled to consider certifying the environmental study Aug. 10. The planners also need a power purchase agreement from the district.
The district would buy the power over 25 years. The price has not been set, but district staff estimates that it will require a 4 percent rate increase.
Proponents say the cost is worthwhile because the plant would run 24 hours a day. Wind power is limited to when the breezes blow, and solar power, including a plant proposed for north McHenry Avenue, comes only when the sun shines.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.