Prison biomass plant up and running after difficult start |

Prison biomass plant up and running after difficult start

Dave Frank
Nevada Appeal Staff Writer

An $8.3 million wood-fired energy plant that made little power during the half year after it opened is now up and running due to better supplies, staff and mechanics.

The plant that opened in September 2007 is now providing about 80 percent of the electricity for Northern Nevada Correctional Center and Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City as well as all the water heating, said Lori Bagwell, head of the project for the Nevada Department of Corrections.

The department improved the plant’s efficiency, replaced prisoner workers with a contracted energy team and hired new suppliers to bring the plant the “biomass” ” limbs, underbrush and plants ” it needed to get started this summer after having run only sporadically before.

Contractors get the biomass from around Lake Tahoe, where forests are being thinned to prevent wildfires.

State and federal officials had blamed the plant’s slow start on problems including inexperienced workers and a lack of biomass supply due to the costs of removing the wood from the mountains and bringing it to the plant.

Bagwell said she is happy that the plant is now providing energy and clearing the forest of leftover wood and plants that could be tinder for wildfires.

The plant now burns over 30 tons of biomass a day and is stockpiling supplies to get through the winter when there are no tree-thinning projects, said Damon Haycock, Northern Nevada Correctional Center business manager.

Operations at the plant have been getting steadily better, he said, with the help of everyone from new biomass suppliers to consultants who examined the mechanics to make the plant run better.

Contractors have taken about 220 tons from around the lake so far, said Christie Kalkowski, a representative for the U.S. Forest Service, and that’s cut down on the risk of the fire in the area.

The plant will also be able to collect more with a $250,000 grant the Forest Service gave to the Nevada Forest Service for equipment, which should be coming soon, she said.

It is not clear, however, if the plant will live up to all the promises the state made. The corrections department said before the plant opened that it would not only take over the $2-million-a-year utility bill of the two prisons, but also produce excess energy that could be sold to NV Energy, formerly Sierra Pacific Power, to raise $9 million over 20 years.

Haycock said managers are still trying to find the most efficient way to run the plant, and whether it will raise money or break even is difficult to tell now.

Karl Walquist, a representative for NV Energy, said they have an agreement to buy energy from the plant, but NV Energy hasn’t done so yet.

– Contact reporter Dave Frank at or 881-1212.