By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Proponents of a proposed energy plant powered by chicken waste are looking for a new home near Sonoma County’s airport after the previous site south of Sonoma was shot down by neighbors concerned about odor and traffic impacts.
Location aside, the proposal by the private partnership OHR BioStar remains mostly the same since it was brought forward last year. The company wants to use waste from local egg farms to feed a set of manure digesters that would generate methane gas and power a 1.4 megawatt fuel cell.
The power from the fuel cell would be sold to the county Water Agency, and the unused methane — about three-quarters of the total produced — would be sold to PG&E.
The electrical generation would be enough to power about 2,100 homes, but the Water Agency intends to use it for its own operations.
Residents’ concerns about odor from the manure and traffic from trucks bringing in the waste led partly to the Sonoma site being taken off the drawing board late last year, months after county supervisors gave their blessing to the project’s original $35 million state bond financing package.
The former site, on county Water Agency land off Eighth Street East, also was too small to accommodate the energy facility, Water Agency officials said.
The new 6.5-acre site, though larger and on Water Agency land near an existing wastewater treatment plant off Skylane Boulevard, still faces questions from business owners in the neighboring industrial park, mostly about odor and increased traffic.
“I remain open to seeing how that’s addressed,” said Larry Wassem, who leads the Airport Business Center, the area’s largest commercial developer and landowner.
An OHR BioStar official said manure would be transported in covered trucks — an average of four waste loads per day — and that all manure and gas processing would occur in an enclosed facility designed to prevent odor from escaping.
The Water Agency and county planning staff have set an April 11 meeting with airport-area business owners to address their concerns.
Other questions relate to the proximity to Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. The new site is about a half-mile east of the east runway.
Restrictions on the height of buildings and gas production near airports could affect the project.
As proposed, tanks housing the three manure digesters would reach 65 feet, a height that could trigger federal review. The site also is in a zone where both gas production and storage — the latter is not planned — are “discouraged” by county airport guidelines.
On those grounds, the county’s Airport Land Use Commission last month postponed until April 11 an initial decision on the project’s compatibility with airport planning documents.
OHR BioStar officials say the height of their tanks can be lowered. They also insist that proximity to an airport is not a problem, pointing to a smaller methane-generation facility at a wastewater plant near San Francisco International Airport.
“The (production of) biogas is not favored, but it is not off the table,” said John Naab, a manager with Kansas City-based BioStar Systems, one of the two firms involved in the partnership. The other is OHR Energy of Los Angeles County.
“As long as we provide for health and safety, which we’re absolutely planning to do, then we’re compatible,” Naab said.
The Board of Supervisors will conduct a hearing April 19 on OHR BioStar’s bond financing, now pegged at $55 million.
That loan, from the state’s Municipal Finance Authority, requires approval from the authority after sign-off by supervisors.
The $20 million increase in the bond package since last year reflected the total cost of the project and the availability of additional public financing, Naab, the BioStar manager, said.
OHR BioStar would own and operate the project while leasing county land. It would be solely responsible for repaying the bonds.
A mid-July deadline related to the bonds could push county officials to fast-track what would normally be a lengthy land-use review process. It could begin Thursday when, Water Agency officials said, they expect to release a study with the finding that the project’s impacts do not merit a full-blown environmental review.
The project could then be brought to the Board of Supervisors for approval in late May. On a slower track, it would be brought to the planning commission and then to supervisors, officials said.
Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes the airport, said the county would not quickly rubber-stamp the project over community objections.
He called the power plant “an intriguing project” with a “long-term benefit” for the county. The Water Agency has committed to meeting all of its energy needs with renewable power sources by 2015, and the methane plant would provide up to a third of that supply.
“(But) there needs to be an aggressive public process to allow individuals to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have,” McGuire said.