Modesto Irrigation District Rejects (Power) Plant

Many ratepayers at meeting call biomass expensive, polluting
Concerns about cost persuaded the Modesto Irrigation District to reject a plan for an $80 million plant that would turn orchard wood into electricity.

Only two of the five directors supported a proposed biomass plant in the Beard Industrial District that mainly would burn wood chips from nut and fruit trees.

More than 50 people filled the boardroom, many of them claiming that the plant would pollute the air and the power would cost MID ratepayers too much.

– Concerns about cost persuaded the Modesto Irrigation District to reject a plan for an $80 million plant that would turn orchard wood into electricity.

“This aggressive pursuit of green energy is a diabolical assault on my health and my wallet,” Modesto resident Joan Rutschow said.

Stephen Endsley, a partner in the project, said he is looking at options for keeping it going.

One is to provide further information to the board members who opposed the plant — Cecil Hensley, John Kidd and Paul Warda — in the hope that they will reconsider. Another is to see if Pacific Gas & Electric Co. or another utility would buy the power.

Endsley and partner Robert Ellery are counting on a federal stimulus grant to cover 30 percent of the $80 million-plus cost. They have to start construction by year’s end to qualify.

Proponents said the plant would have advanced emission controls and would reduce the amount of wood burned in the open after tree removal or pruning.

“Our goal here was always to make it a plant for the people — a green plant that people could point to,” said Endsley, a real estate investor and retired Modesto cardiologist.

He said his partnership has spent about $1 million on planning for the 33-megawatt plant, which would meet 9 percent of the MID’s power demand.

Ellery owns Bay City Boiler & Engineering Co. in Hayward, which has a patent pending for the smokestack controls that would have been used.

Directors Glen Wild and Tom Van Groningen supported the project.

The only vote was on certifying the study of the plant’s environmental impacts, which would have allowed construction to proceed. Because that failed, the board did not bother with the power purchase contract, also on the agenda.

Under the 20-year contract, the MID would have paid 11.2 cents per kilowatt-hour to start, with increases capped at 2 percent a year. That would have been more than the 8.5-cent average cost from all sour-ces but less than the 17 cents the board has agreed to pay for power from a large solar complex proposed for north McHenry Avenue.

Warda said he did not want to saddle customers with the 3 percent rate increase believed to be needed in 2013 to cover the cost of energy from the biomass plant. He said the district has 10 years to meet a state mandate to get 33 percent of its power from renewable sources, so alternatives to this project can be explored.

Kidd said he was concerned about the power cost and the risk of fire in the large stockpiles of wood chips.

Noe Paramo, who lives in the La Loma neighborhood, said emissions from the plant would harm people at nearby homes, businesses and schools.

“Many of our residents have asthma and other respiratory conditions,” he said. “This will only add to their health conditions.”

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District determined that the plant would not pose a major health risk, said Rupi Gill, permit services manager for the agency.

Eric Reimer, treasurer of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, questioned whether the Northern San Joaquin Valley has enough orchard wood to feed the plant. The operators could turn instead to “imported urban junk from the Bay Area,” he said.

Project consultant Phil Reese said the permit from the air district would allow only clean wood, not household garbage, tires or other waste. Lumber from construction sites could supplement the orchard wood.

The plant’s location near Modesto Airport drew opposition from its manager, Jerome Thiele, and from the California Pilots Association. They said heat rising from the smokestack could cause turbulence for low-flying aircraft.
(Editor’s Note: Safety issues from rising, heated, polluted plumes have been ignored prior to CALPILOTS involvement with locating power plants in close proximity to airports – which power plant companies seem to be targeting).

Proponents said studies have found no such trouble for aircraft flying near other industrial sites.

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

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