MID says 'yes' to wood for power

A plant that would turn orchard wood into electricity won initial support Tuesday from the Modesto Irrigation District board.

Directors voted 5-0 to launch the state-required environmental study of the plant, which would be built in the Beard Industrial District in southeast Modesto.

The plant would burn wood removed from nut and fruit orchards during pruning or replacement of the trees.

It would provide a service to growers facing an end to open burning and supply the MID with a nearby source of renewable fuel.

The project would mean 20 to 25 jobs at the plant and about that many people working on contract to chip and truck the wood from the farms.

"That's the benefit — create local jobs, local tax base, local air quality benefits," said Robert Ellery, a partner in the project.

The plant, which could be running by 2012, would help the MID meet a state mandate to get 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

The district stands at 12 percent today, almost all of it wind. The share is expected to rise to 25 percent with wind additions this year and next, then hit 33 percent with the wood-burning plant.

Ellery, owner of Bay City Boiler & Engineering Co. in Hayward, is planning the $85 million project with Stephen Endsley, a real estate investor and retired cardiologist in Modesto. They hope to cover 30 percent of the cost with a federal grant.

The MID 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.

The plant nonetheless would be worthwhile because it could run at any time, unlike wind turbines, which are subject to the breezes, said Greg Salyer, manager of resource planning and development for the MID.

He said the purchase contract would have a predictable price, unlike the fluctuating cost of natural gas, the main fuel for power generation.

For years, nut and fruit growers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have torched their piles of waste wood. Air pollution concerns led to phasing out the practice between 2005 and this year.

Many growers chip the wood and let it decay into the soil. Experts say this practice is limited because the chips can get mixed in with newly harvested almonds and walnuts on the ground.

Gov. Schwarzenegger ordered the renewable energy standard to help curb emissions believed to be changing the global climate.

The proposed plant would help in part by burning wood, creating fewer carbon dioxide emissions than existing plants, supporters said.

Ellery said the plant would reduce the amount of wood left on orchard floors, where it releases methane, an especially potent climate-changing gas.

The plant would get an average of about 50 truckloads of chips a day, Ellery said. The volume would vary by season, increasing as trees are pruned in winter, he said.

Eric Reimer, a member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, said the district needs to consider how much diesel fuel would be burned to chip and haul the wood.

Salyer said the California Energy Commission has factored that into its assessment of the value of biomass plants.

Also Tuesday, the board awarded an $18.4 million contract for expansion of the gas-fueled power plant on Woodland Avenue to Haskell Corp. of Bellingham, Wash.

It will erect a structure housing $35.9 million worth of generating equipment that the MID has bought for the 49.6-megawatt expansion.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.