With the newly appointed B.B. Blevins on hand, members of the California Energy Commission this week agreed that Turlock Irrigation District?s Walnut Energy Center has cleared all siting hurdles and may begin construction. The commission?s acceptance of TID?s application means that work could start at the 18- acre site west of Turlock in a matter of weeks. ?We?re anxious to get started,? said Tony Walker, spokesperson for the irrigation district. Preliminary site activities, such as staking out the lines and leveling the plot, could begin in early March. TID plans for the 250 MW gas-fired plant to be on line the first quarter of 2006. When the CEC issued its proposed order on the Walnut project, commissioner James Boyd noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had questioned the validity of emission reduction credits TID purchased to offset pollutants from the unit (see <i>Energy Circuit</i>, January 23, 2004). To Walker?s knowledge, the EPA has not pursued the issue. He added that the project has met virtually no local opposition. In addition, the irrigation district sent a letter to nearby residents explaining that ?over 250 permit conditions have been imposed? to make sure the project is built and operated in accordance with environmental and public safety rules. Output from the new project would support or supplant various TID power contracts. These deals include a 50 MW pact with Calpine that expires in June 2008; a contract with the coal-fired Boardman power plant in Oregon, also for 50 MW, that ends in 2019; and an agreement with the city and county of San Francisco for power generated at Hetch Hetchy, which expires in 2015. Walker could not say whether the Walnut facility would cost less than signing new long-term contracts. He added that TID strives to be self-sufficient and that explosive growth in surrounding areas?Turlock, Ceres, and Patterson among them?is driving the need for additional generation. The project?s price tag at present is estimated to be between $160 million and $220 million. Commissioners voted 5-0 in favor of the plant proposal. According to a CEC bulletin, the commission has now licensed 46 plants since 1996, of which 24?with a total capacity of 8,311 MW?are up and running. Also during the CEC?s regular meeting this week, commissioners ratified biomass energy guidelines stemming from SB 704 passed last year. The bill by Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) requires the energy commission to pay incentives to eligible facilities that burn agricultural waste and turn it into energy. Under prior law, air districts applied to the Technology, Trade, and Commerce Agency to obtain grants on behalf of qualified biomass burners. The CEC will make available $6 million in incentives ?in payments of $10 per ton of biomass fuel?from its Renewable Resource Trust Fund in 2003-04. Qualifying biomass materials include any agricultural waste bought after July 1, 2003, that has in the past been burned in open fields. Facilities must have best available control technology and emission controls that are in good working order. Neither participating biomass providers nor the facilities converting the fuel to energy will be allowed to receive emission reduction credits under the program. By adopting the rules, the CEC will be able to just beat SB 704?s March 1 deadline for issuing incentives covering qualified biomass buys made from July 1, 2003, through the end of last year. The California Biomass Energy Alliance voiced its approval of the guidelines prior to a unanimous aye vote by CEC members. Also receiving the commission?s uniform endorsement were two multimillion-dollar contracts with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. One pact, priced at $2.95 million, will go toward lab testing for ?microgrid? technology in support of interconnecting distributed-generation resources on the main power grid. So far, the CEC has funded $1.8 million through its Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program in related research, and the U.S. Department of Energy has contributed $2.8 million. The other Lawrence Berkeley contract would provide for creation of the Demand Response Research Center. The center, planned to bring together efforts from a multitude of institutions nationwide, would develop and carry out demand-response studies over three years. Research would hew to policy set forth in the CEC?s Integrated Energy Policy Report, as well as the state?s energy action plan, according to commission staff. Key stakeholders in the project would include the CEC, state regulators, utilities, and manufacturers of demand-response equipment. The effort will be backed by the energy commission?s PIER program at a total cost of about $8 million. ?A lot of people are already looking to us for results in this area. We need to move on it,? noted commissioner Boyd during the February 18 CEC meeting.