Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station, the 20-megawatt biomass plant outside Chinese Camp that burns wood chips to make electricity, is awaiting approval of a new five-year agreement to sell power to Southern California Edison, according to a 178-page advice letter filed this week with the state Public Utilities Commission.

Edison staff indicate in the letter that a contract with Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station, if approved, would begin March 1.

The potential contract with Southern California Edison is the first long-term offer for Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station since a 30-year power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric expired and short-term contract extensions ended earlier this year.

Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station, which employs 25 people and is billed as contributing more than $55 million in economic impact in Tuolumne County, shut down without a contract Nov. 1, said Rick Spurlock, a director of operations with IHI Power Services Corp., an owner of Chinese Station.

The Union Democrat obtained a copy of the Nov. 22 advice letter that includes information about the potential contract for Chinese Station from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The advice letter filed by Southern California Edison seeks approval for three bioenergy power purchase agreements, including the contract with Chinese Station. The advice letter itself is not a guarantee of a contract, Spurlock said Wednesday.

“The advice letter must be approved by the CPUC during one of the upcoming voting meetings,” Spurlock said. “We expect approval, but it’s not guaranteed.”

Southern California Edison requested in the advice letter the California Public Utilities Commission approve the new contracts within 30 days, Spurlock said, adding he believes CPUC has up to 12 months to make a decision.

The Nov. 1 shutdown of Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station means one of the Mother Lode’s primary biomass plants is closed in the midst of the statewide tree mortality crisis, in which federal scientists say more than 60 million trees have died this year alone in drought-stricken, beetle-infested Sierra Nevada forests.

Instead, plant operators and their employees are in the midst of what they call a major refurbishment maintenance outage. No one has been laid off, Spurlock said.

“The current staff is highly skilled and will be involved in all aspects of the outage,” Spurlock said last week. “Many of the planned tasks will be completed by the current staff.”

The Chinese Station biomass plant needs upgrading and maintenance of its boiler, Rick Carter, plant manager at Chinese Station, said in June.

Work on the boiler during the current maintenance outage will include in-bed tube replacement, evaporator tube replacement, emissions equipment refurbishment and refractory repairs, Spurlock said last week. The maintenance work is expected to cost just under $3 million.

Meanwhile, operators of Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station are actively looking to sign five-year contracts with companies that can supply biomass fuel from high hazard zones in Central Sierra forests.

“All of this fuel will be used locally at Chinese Station to produce electricity once the plant returns to service early next year,” Spurlock said.

In addition to the 25 people who work there, Chinese Station also helps generate more than 160 outside jobs, according to IHI Power Services Corporation. Most of the plant jobs and outside jobs support Tuolumne County residents.

Average total compensation for Chinese Station employees, including salary, benefits and annual bonuses is about $130,000, Carter said earlier this year. Socio-economic impact from Chinese Station in Tuolumne County totals more than $55 million, according to a consultant hired by IHI Power Services Corporation.

Five consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to historic levels of tree die-off in Sierra Nevada forests.

Longer, hotter fire seasons with extreme fire behavior, coupled with increased development in forested areas, are dramatically driving up costs of fighting fires, and squeezing funding for efforts that could protect watersheds and restore forests to make them more resilient to fire, according to Department of Agriculture staff.

Forest Service scientists say they expect to see more tree mortality in 2017 in dense forest stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents, and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity.