Prison’s $8 million biomass plant too costly to operate
Prison officials say the state’s first attempt at a renewable energy project – the wood-fired power plant designed to eliminate nearly all of Northern Nevada Correctional Center’s utility bills – is a failure.
Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik said Friday the power plant “doesn’t pencil out” in the long run and he wants to lease, sell or shut it down by the end of summer.
The plant cost the state $6.5 million. The project has also received both forest service and stimulus funding which, when added in, bring the total outlay to about
$8.8 million, according to deputy corrections director Jeff Mohlenkamp.
But Skolnik said the federal money won’t be there in the future.
“The numbers are working as long as we have the federal grant,” he said.
When approved by the Board of Examiners, the project was touted as able to produce all the hot water needed by the prison and enough electricity to eliminate NNCC’s $40,000 a month power bill and provide the state with a profit by selling the excess to NV Energy.
The plant is designed to burn wood chips at 1,600 degrees, producing a lot of heat but very little pollution.
Among its supporters were U.S. Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller, both R-Nev. Heller said when the project was approved that, if it was successful, he could envision similar power plants being constructed for schools and other public buildings.
Ensign said as recently as January when he toured the plant that forest health alone is enough to justify the project.
“When you can do things that are actually good from an economic standpoint, too, it’s a win-win situation,” he said during that tour.
Skolnik and Mohlenkamp said it hasn’t worked out that way.
“The original design was just not large enough to make it truly profitable in the long term,” said Skolnik.
Mohlenkamp said there were design problems and that the project “was a good idea but one that was not well implemented.”
He said improvements over the past two years have made the plant much more efficient.
“It’s operating a whole lot better than it ever was,” he said.
But, he said, even when it is generating enough electricity to power the prison, “operating costs are such that it still can’t turn an operating profit.”
Andrew List of the Nevada Fire Safe Council said power generation isn’t the only important reason to try to save the plant. He said it disposes of tons of forest underbrush and flammable waste that might otherwise cause serious forest fires on the Sierra Front and Tahoe Basin.
The alternative, List said, is to collect those materials and burn them in place, which he said creates air pollution in the basin.
The Fire Safe Council helps remove hazardous fuels from private lands in the basin which, without it, would probably never be cleared away.
Closing the plant, he said, takes away an important option and could result in increased costs to improve the safety of those private lands.
A major problem, Mohlen-
kamp said, is that the plant needs “a certain specification of wood.” He said with the help of Tom Baker, the former aide to U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, the plant is getting plenty of wood chips from U.S. Forest Service and Nevada Division of Forestry crews who are trying to reduce underbrush and other dangerous fuels built up in the Sierra and Tahoe Basin. He said it’s the technical specifications of the chips and the quality of the wood available which present problems.
Baker said it would be a shame to have the state’s first venture into renewable energy fail this way.
And while Baker said the cost of the wood has been cut in half over the past year, Mohlenkamp said it’s still too costly.
Another idea from the original proposal was that inmate labor would man the plant.
“It’s just too complicated for that,” Mohlenkamp said of the high-tech plant.
He said because the analysis of the operation says its flaws can’t be cured, the state doesn’t believe it will ever deliver as promised.
“If we can’t find a buyer, it’s likely we’ll shut it down by the end of summer,” he said.
“But that doesn’t mean the technology and the concept is a bad thing,” he said. “It’s a lesson learned. It doesn’t mean plants like this can’t be successful.”
He said along those lines, prison officials are going to help the forest service write a paper on the lessons learned from the NNCC plant. He said hopefully those lessons will be applied to the construction and operation of a new biomass plant being built at North Lake Tahoe.