While two firms continue to develop plans for new biomass facilities in Central Oregon that would produce power and fuel, a utility continues researching whether biomass could run its coal-fired power plant in the region.
Biogreen Sustainable Energy Co., based in Vancouver, Washington, still plans to build a 25 megawatt facility — first suggested in 2009 — on a nearly 20-acre site in La Pine’s industrial park.
“We’re just on hold,” said Rob Broberg, president of the firm.
Building the $75 million project depends on securing a contract to sell the power, likely to a utility in Oregon or California trying to meet requirements for renewable energy.
“I think this winter’s going to be very interesting,” Broberg said of progress on contracts.
The biomass energy process heats woody material — wood chips, branches from thinning waste or yard debris, for instance — and creates steam that runs turbines to generate electricity. The facility would use existing electric infrastructure, including power lines and a nearby substation, to connect to the electric grid.
Biogreen Sustainable Energy has its own supply of woody materials from its timberlands in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere, but could source the materials from nearby sites if they offer better deals, Broberg noted. The firm plans to seek county building permits in the future but already has land use and other approvals, he said.
The firm renewed its purchase option for the industrial park spot earlier this year, according to Economic Development for Central Oregon. La Pine manages the industrial park, and Deschutes County owns some large lots within it. Businesses can lease or buy spaces, but the city ensures the land gets used for economic development, said La Pine City Manager Cory Misley. Misley noted that the city will review plans if the firm completes a power purchase agreement and moves forward with developing the plant.
“The ball’s in their court,” Misley said.
Farther south in Lake County, Colorado firm Red Rock Biofuels LLC aims to finish securing financing and start construction on a biomass plant in Lakeview at the end of the year that would create fuel. Construction could take 15 to 18 months.
The plant would heat timber waste like branches in a high-temperature, high-pressure process so that the material decomposes quickly, breaking down into carbon and hydrogen chains that can be linked to form desired fuels. The facility would produce about 1,000 barrels per day — about 15 million gallons per year — of jet fuel, diesel and a gasoline blend, according to Mary Dinh, project manager at Red Rock Biofuels. It would use about 140,000 dry tons of waste wood per year.
Larger-scale facilities have used a similar process elsewhere in the world, but with coal, not woody materials. Scaling down to a smaller level, using woody biomass and combining different technologies involved in the process would make the plant a first of its kind, Dinh said. The firm is also looking to create more plants in other locations in the future — part of the process in securing financing.
“Nobody funds just one plant,” Dinh said. “This first facility needs to be successful.”
Red Rock has completed the permitting process and contracted with FedEx and Southwest Airlines for the fuels, but it continues working toward securing financing for the entire project, Dinh said. The firm has contracted with private timberlands in California and Oregon for the biomass material. The plant could use a county rail line next to the Lakeview site to ship the fuel out to California, where Southwest Airlines and FedEx both have operations in Oakland. Rail cars could go out about twice per week. Dinh said the costs customers pay for the fuel is proprietary, but that production costs are competitive with those for production of conventional fuels — meaning customers don’t pay a premium for renewable fuels. The firm sought to ensure production costs were competitive, according to Dinh.
Dinh expects the site to host 35 permanent, full-time positions. A Business Oregon analysis has estimated the plant would result in 246 to 284 jobs for about a year to build the plant, plus 107 to 125 indirect jobs in supply and other areas related to that construction. On an annual basis, the plant could support 106 to 135 indirect jobs in Oregon through related supply and operation activities.
The community has high expectations.
“That’s quite a boon to the size of Lake County,” Jim Walls, executive director of economic development group Lake County Resources Initiative, said of the plant’s expected impact. “Economic development in Lake County is tough. We’re remote.”
Walls noted the timber industry’s decline years ago that hit the county of about 8,500 people and Lakeview’s community of about 2,500.
“It’s coming along, and we’re optimistic and hopeful,” Walls said, calling the planned plant “definitely a big plus for Lake County.”
Farther north, Portland General Electric plans to end its use of coal at its 575 megawatt power plant in Boardman by the end of 2020 and continues trying to determine whether biomass would work there instead.
If it does, the plant could become the largest biomass-fired plant in the U.S., according to PGE. The utility also touts the possibility of the plant becoming the nation’s largest baseload renewable resource plant, able to produce consistently rather than intermittently like other renewable resources, such as solar or wind.
PGE is considering a process called torrefaction that involves a sort of roasting of woody material without moisture, resulting in a brittle, pulverized substance that can act like coal and work in the plant’s equipment. The utility aims to conduct a 24-hour test by the end of the year, gauging how the plant functions with the material.
There are other issues PGE will also need to consider with a potential conversion, like the emissions from burning the material, the types of controls that may be needed and whether the entire effort is cost-effective. Plus, the process takes a lot of fuel, said PGE spokesman Steve Corson. The test, for instance, will need 8,000 tons of torrefied biomass. And that resource, unlike sunlight and wind, is not free. But the utility finds advantages in the fact that the plant and infrastructure already exist — and that the facility already employs about 100 people full time.
“It really is a research project for us at this point,” Corson said of the possibility of converting the plant to biomass, noting that any such conversion likely would not occur immediately after the plant stops using coal at the end of 2020 anyway. “It’s worth continuing the research.”
Environmental organizations have zeroed in on policy issues involved with biomass, noting possible forest management and carbon emissions implications. For instance, Sierra Club urges against changing forest management policy simply to help feed such biomass plants, such as through excessively thinning a forest to get more fuel to burn.
The group — along with about two dozen other environmental organizations — has also advocated for conditions in current bills in Congress to ensure biomass does not get a blanket designation as carbon-neutral. While biomass can be grown, harvested and burned in a carbon-neutral way, carbon neutrality should not be assumed, the organizations argued. Such a policy could lead to releasing carbon that would otherwise remain sequestered in forests, they said. The coalition noted that carbon released through natural decomposition of trees and vegetation takes place over time as that material slowly decomposes, rather than instantaneously from burning.
The coalition also emphasized that the way of accounting for carbon emitted during combustion of biomass should differ depending on the type of feedstock, or biomass used in the process. Different feedstocks involved with biomass carry different emissions levels, with different climate consequences, said Alexander Harris, a conservation organizer with Sierra Club. So any legislation or policy needs to differentiate among those feedstocks — using a different accounting approach for smaller branches from thinning work that would have been discarded anyway, for instance, compared to larger trees that can retain carbon.
“Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the same problem we have now” with emissions, Harris said.
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