Each spring after the snow melts, Tahoe goes about its annual ritual of raking pine needles. Like a huge, syncopated orchestra, neighbors stuff the fruits of their labor in garbage bags and stack them curbside.
On the South Shore, South Tahoe Refuse’s fleet of orange trucks and safety vest-wearing staff dutifully haul the pine duff, cones, branches and twigs to STR’s transfer station for disposal. The woody debris is loaded onto trucks and driven 25 miles to Nevada where it’s composted.
That final step in the process is where the opportunity lies. Instead of trucking away that mulch-to-be, why not save the gas, eliminate the tailpipe emissions and generate some clean, renewable energy while we’re at it?
STR — with the support of organizations like the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the city of South Lake Tahoe, South Tahoe Public Utility District and Wisewood Energy — are taking steps toward the installation of a wood waste gasifier to generate heat and electricity from a small facility at its South Lake Tahoe site.
Once installed, this “net metering” system would supply nearly all STR’s electricity and natural gas needs by using just 10% of the wood waste currently collected. As an added benefit, the renewable energy project would reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions from transporting the woody waste out of the basin by over 72 truckloads, or 3,600 miles, each year.
Gasification has been around since the early 1800’s. Instead of burning, chemical reactions turn green waste into a gas that is a cleaner substitute for fossil fuels, like oil, diesel or natural gas. Gasification is not combustion; woody biomass is “baked” in the absence of oxygen to create syngas, which is passed through a filter to reduce particulates before entering a generator and producing electricity and heat. These systems have very low particulate emissions, generate no smoke and require no water. Byproducts are limited to ash, tar and small amounts of NOx, similar to other generators.
The renewable energy pilot project would be located on just a tenth of an acre at STR’s South Lake Tahoe transfer station. It will not increase STR’s footprint, be visible from the street, generate any smoke or significantly increase sound levels from current operations.
On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Forest Health and Wildfire Committee reviewed preliminary information on the proposed project’s expected environmental and safety impacts. The committee’s work paved the way for TRPA’s Governing Board to accept the project application. Now, STR is working to advance the project through the permit application process. If approved, the system could be constructed and on-line as soon as 2024.
We are all living in a new, climate change-fueled reality of constant wildfire risk. Tahoe property owners, renters and public land managers are working to reduce woody fuels that may spread flames in the basin. As a result of their forest thinning and defensible space actions, there is a glut of woody debris. That same “waste” holds the potential to create clean, renewable electricity and heat.
The STR renewable energy pilot project is modest in scale and won’t make Tahoe wildfire-proof on its own. But, it does hold great promise for boosting Tahoe’s energy independence, supporting the health of our forests and cutting pollution that damages the beautiful blue lake we all hold dear.
For more information about the renewable energy pilot project, visit southtahoerefuse.tphspace.com.
Signed by South Tahoe Refuse & Recycling, League to Save Lake Tahoe, South Tahoe Public Utility District, City of South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, Wisewood Energy, and South Fork of the American River Collaborative.