Grants help get woody fuel to Tuolumne County plants

Two wood-burning power plants in Tuolumne County are among those selected Wednesday for a federal program that helps supply the fuel.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has up to $12.5 million each year to help with the cost of delivering chipped wood from logging sites and farms. These include trees that are too small to be made into lumber but would pose a wildfire risk if left in overly dense stands.

Payments can be made to companies supplying this material, known as biomass, to 36 plants in 14 states. One is Pacific Ultrapower near Chinese Camp, which generates power for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Another is Sierra Pacific Industries, which has a sawmill in Standard powered by wood.

“This program generates clean energy from biomass, reduces the threat of fires by removing dead or diseased trees from public forest lands and invests in rural businesses and new energy markets,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.

SPI, based near Redding, has three of its other Northern California plants in the program. It means biomass suppliers “can receive supplemental payment on top of what we pay them to deliver wood fiber to us,” said an email from Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability.

The funding, through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, is for material delivered until September 2015. The qualifying plants also include one near Tracy that burns forest waste and another near Mendota fueled by orchard wood and other agricultural waste.

The announcement came nearly a year after the start of the Rim fire, which burned about a quarter-million acres in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park, and SPI and other private land.

“Pairing this effort with forest restoration on public lands will help guard against these fires while promoting economic opportunity for rural communities,” said Vilsack, who oversees national forests.