EPA biomass delay almost up

By Andrew Clevenger The Bulletin

WASHINGTON — In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to delay the imposition of its greenhouse gas standard on biomass power plants for three years.

Now, with the grace period set to expire on July 1, the federal agency has yet to give much indication of what, if any, adjustments it has made to its standards for emissions generated by biomass, the broad category that includes organic waste from trees, plants and other sources.

“EPA is undertaking a detailed examination of the science associated with biogenic (carbon dioxide) emissions from stationary sources, including engaging with federal partners, technical experts, and an independent Science Advisory Board (SAB) to consider technical issues,” an EPA spokesperson said recently in response to a request for an update. “At this stage, EPA is considering the recommendations made by the SAB to determine next steps.”

Oregon’s congressional delegation pushed for the delay in 2011, in part because at the time two biomass-fueled power plants were in the planning stages for Central Oregon.

Biogreen Sustainable Energy Co., of St. Helens, secured a permit for a 20-megawatt facility in La Pine, but that project has yet to materialize. Last year, Biogreen president Rob Broberg told The Bulletin that the energy market had changed the financial calculus around the project, and any action was likely years away.

Attempts to reach Broberg for this story were unsuccessful.

A 35-megawatt plant in Warm Springs was also under consideration, but that project didn’t advance past the analysis stage, said Matt Krumenauer, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy.

For large-scale biomass projects, a lot depends on the price developers can secure from the power companies that would buy their energy, he said.

“If they’re not able to secure a contract with a price that’s favorable enough, they’re unable to get financing,” he said.

In recent years, the natural gas boom has driven down the cost of energy, which makes it harder for biomass projects to remain financially viable.

In addition, the demand for renewable energy has changed since the EPA announced its delay, he said. Notably, California has readjusted its renewable portfolio standard to put more emphasis on projects based in California, he said.

Biopower is now a $10 billion a year industry, and 80 facilities in 20 states generate 15 million megawatt hours each year, according to the Biomass Power Association. Unlike fossil fuels, plants grow back and capture additional carbon, making biomass “carbon neutral,” the association emphasizes.

But even as renewable energy accounts for a larger share of America’s energy production, biomass output has remained relatively flat. In 2003, wood produced 9.5 million megawatt hours, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A decade later, it had grown to 12.2 million megawatt hours.

By contrast, wind production grew from 11.1 million megawatt hours to 167.6 million megawatt hours over the same period.

Biomass development in Oregon has shifted to smaller projects, such as boilers in schools, hospitals and other public buildings, Krumenauer said. Traditionally, Oregon’s lumber and paper mills could use the slash from logging to heat their kilns and generate electricity, he said.

With a new facility in John Day, Malheur Lumber Company produces biomass bricks which it is able to market locally, thereby diversifying its business, he said.

One client, Blue Mountain Hospital, was able to save $100,000 on energy costs each year by using Malheur’s bricks, he said.

“Even though those are small projects,” they can have significant impacts, Krumenauer said. “We still think they are little gems that we could see more of, especially in our rural areas.”

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com

Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin file photo John Shelk, managing director of Ochoco Lumber Company, left, gives Royce Dotson a tour of the biomass plant currently under construction at Malheur Lumber in John Day back in 2010. The Environmental Protection Agencyís three-year delay on the imposition of its greenhouse gas standard on biomass power plants is set to expire this summer.
Andy Tullis / The Bulletin file photo A look inside a biomass plant at Sisters High School in 2011.
Joshua Jokinen