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‘Cow Power To Horsepower’ Researched In Bellingham February 16, 2010

Filed under: Farm/Ranch,Methane Digesters,Washington — nwrenewablenews @ 4:35 pm

When you think of what federal economic stimulus money has paid for, the first things that come to mind might be highway paving, energy retrofits or high–speed trains. Now here’s one of the most unconventional stimulus projects we’ve heard of. An institute at Western Washington University is getting half a million dollars to examine how to convert cow poop into horsepower.

Five years ago, dairy farmer Darryl Vander Haak flipped the switch on the first poop–to–power generator in Washington State. Officially, the facility near Lynden, Washington is known as a methane digester. Manure from around a 1000 cows goes in one end. Then controlled decomposition yields methane gas. It’s burned like natural gas in an electric generator.

The rub is, electricity sales haven’t been very profitable, or profitable at all says dairyman Vander Haak.

Vander Haak: “We’re looking for alternative ways. The Northwest has too much hydropower to compete with. It would be easier to compete with the gas companies, I guess.”

That’s why Vander Haak was open minded when the director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University came calling from down the road in Bellingham. Eric Leonhardt says he’s long had his eye on the dairy herd as a source of transportation fuel.

Leonhardt: “The problem is when the gas comes off the digester, it has not only methane in it — 60 percent — it also has carbon dioxide — forty percent, roughly. And it has a trace of hydrogen sulfide.”

Leonhardt says the challenge is to remove those engine–wrecking impurities cost–effectively. Other than that, powering vehicles with natural gas is not new. Generating the fuel from renewable sources has been done before too, for example at landfills. The U.S. Department of Energy gave the $500,000 grant to improve the fuel refining process and then demonstrate whether biogas could be cost–competitive. At lot depends on the price of fossil fuels.

Leonhardt: “At $6 a gallon, the payoff period isn’t very long.”

Banse: “So $6 a gallon for petroleum fuel?”

Leonhardt: “Yes. If you start at $3 a gallon, it’s a push. It is right on the edge of being possible.”

This spring, the Vehicle Research Institute plans to retrofit a donated airporter shuttle bus. It will take a few months of road testing to confirm Leonhardt’s cost estimates. The researcher has already calculated that the cows from just two large dairies could fuel all the public buses in his home of Whatcom County.

I’m Tom Banse in Bellingham, Washington.

Tom Banse, KUOW –


Despite possible suit, canola project continues in Ore. February 10, 2010

Filed under: Biofuels,Farm/Ranch,Legal/Courts,Oregon — nwrenewablenews @ 5:02 pm
Tags: , ,

An economic development grant approved by Josephine County officials last year has hit a snag, but Commissioner Dave Toler said that the project remains worthwhile and has benefited the community.

The $85,000 grant was approved by the board of county commissioners on Jan. 13, 2009 by a 2-1 vote, with Sandi Cassanelli dissenting. It was awarded to the Josephine County Soil and Water Conservation District (JCSWCD), which was charged with administering the grant in cooperation with the Eugene-based firm, N.W. Seed Crushers.

At the time, it was hoped that canola could be grown by area farmers, which could then be crushed, with the resulting oil used for biofuels. The growing of canola is prohibited in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but not in the southwest portion of the state.

However, the partnership between N.W. Seed Crushers and JCSWCD now appears to be dissolving, and could end up in litigation.

Toler addressed the issue during the Wednesday, Feb. 3 meeting of the Josephine County Renewable Energy Task Force, held at the courthouse in Grants Pass.

Only half of the grant allotment has been spent, Toler said, meaning that the other half is still available.

Toler touted certain aspects of the grant allocation. He said that more than 300 acres of canola have been planted throughout the county as a result, with several growers participating.

Kit Doyle has taken the lead on the project, Toler said, and has created partnerships with many growers. Doyle also has a waiting list of other growers hoping to become involved, Toler said.

A production facility for the crop may be established somewhere in the county soon, Toler said, adding that the Applegate Valley is becoming the local “epicenter” of canola growing.

Once the canola seed is crushed, around 70 percent of the product can be used as an agricultural feed product, Toler said, and the rest can be used as a biofuel.

He said that a new state mandate requires that 3 percent of the diesel consumed in Oregon come from renewable energy sources. There is currently an inadequate supply of such renewables in the state right now, he said, so it is being imported from Montana.

“This is definitely growing,” Toler said.

The grant was intended to stimulate the growth of biofuels crops, Toler said. Unless the commissioners vote to pull the remaining funding back, he said, it can go to a local contractor to continue the project.

“I think it will have a long-term impact in terms of agriculture,” Toler said. “With $43,000, we stimulated part of our agriculture sector. That’s great bang for our buck.”

Doyle will be scheduled to make a presentation to the commissioners sometime in mid-February about the canola project, Toler said.

Scott Jorgensen, Illionois Valley News –


Oregon Farmers examine biomass crops and power generation

Local farmers Monday were invited to be involved in the renewable energy field, not only as producers of a crop that could be turned into a fuel, but also as owners of the power generation facility that would burn the crop to produce electricity.

The question is “are we going to be in the driver’s seat?” Randon Wilson, an attorney who specializes in forming agriculture co-ops, said. “We have to decide where we are in charge.”

Wilson told the group, gathered at the Boulevard Grange near Ontario, as members of a proposed co-op for production of biomass crops, they could own the whole process from farm to processing to generation, or they could just do a portion of it. That would include producing the biomass crop that would be turned into fuel or producing the crop and the processing facility that would turn the crop into pellets.

It would take about five months to construct a processing plant to make the pellets, Wilson said. Construction of a power plant will take 18 to 24 months, Renewable Ag Energy Inc. President Kirk Christensen said.

The meeting was hosted by representatives of Renewable Ag Energy, Inc., an Ontario company assisting a group of local farmers, Agri Energy Producers, to bring a new crop to Malheur County.

While there is more than one crop that would produce the biomass, the co-op proponents were mainly discussing high biomass sorghum.

The high biomass crops would be planted in late May. Irrigation and fertilizer applications would be similar to corn. It would be harvested in September or October. Chopped green, it would be hauled to a conversion facility, where it would be stored, dried, cubed and shipped.

Harvesting, hauling and processing costs will be absorbed by the co-op, Christensen said.

“We’re not playing the fuel market,” Christensen said.

The farmers would be paid for growing the crop and participate in the profits from the conversion plan and profits from the generation facility, he said.

“We can’t survive on just what is produced on the farm,” Wilson said. “We need more bites. We have to take a look at energy.”

It was estimated the power plant would support 17 to 20 family-wage jobs, Christensen said.

Choices include full integration, wholly owned by the farmers, or partial integration, linked with other joint ventures or investors, Wilson said. But, it becomes difficult when you mix producers and investors, Wilson said, because eventually there are tensions between the two interests.

“We would like to get the jump on creating a state-wide co-op,” he said, adding that different groups of growers could act as separate divisions.

Such a large co-op would give the producers a lot of clout, Wilson said.

“There is a significant market,” he said.

Wilson, Christensen and others were also meeting with representatives from state agencies this week to discuss the permitting processes, land-use and other regulation issues.

Larry Meyer, Argus Observer –


Oregon’s Steens Mountain could soon have wind farms February 7, 2010

Ruggedly beautiful Steens Mountain stands in an area of southeast Oregon so isolated that it’s barely changed since cattle king Pete French arrived in the late 1800s.

Coyotes yelp at sundown. Drivers are so few that they wave to each other as they pass. Campers, hunters and bird-watchers trek from across the state to breathe in the majestic emptiness and to gaze from the Steens summit across a seemingly endless tapestry of high desert and open range.

But soon, the scenery will change.

Harney County has cleared Columbia Energy Partners of Vancouver to build a wind farm on the mountain’s north slope. By year’s end, 415-foot turbines could start rising from the juniper and sagebrush, among thousands of towers that developers are stampeding to build across eastern Oregon.

In addition, Columbia Energy has two more wind projects in the works for the Steens slope, plus another for Riddle Mountain to the northeast. A Houston company is scouting 18,000 acres to the south for a wind farm in the Pueblo Mountains, and more could follow.

“There are a number of sites being prospected by developers,” said John Audley of Portland’s Renewable Northwest Project, a coalition of companies and groups that promotes renewable-energy projects. “These prospectors are like old gold miners.”

Aside from wind farms, thousands of acres on Steens Mountain are open to homebuilding.

“We counted over 90 sites that you could come in tomorrow and make application to put homes on,” said Steve Grasty, chairman of the Harney County commissioners. One landowner won clearance to build hundreds of homes near the Steens’ Fish Lake.

But while some environmentalists are dismayed by the prospect of development on Steens Mountain — even if it’s green-friendly wind turbines — county officials are thrilled.

“We have an opportunity to put a $1.25 billion investment into this community,” said Grasty, referring to the value of Columbia Energy’s four wind projects and an accompanying transmission line.

“Holy mackerel, and it is an environmentally sensitive way to do it.”

To outsiders, it may seem unthinkable to build on the flank of an Oregon treasure. But to Harney County, it’s simple math.

A century after the close of the Western frontier, the county retains its gun-rack rawness. Residents are self-reliant, a necessity in a county bigger than nine states but with just 7,700 residents.

But the economy, long struggling, has been trampled in the recent recession. December’s jobless rate nudged 18 percent (compared with 11 percent statewide), not far from 1980’s record 21.8 percent, said Jason Yohannan, a state labor economist in La Grande.

The demise of RV-maker Monaco Coach in 2008-09 left Harney County with no manufacturing, Yohannan said, a change from the late 1970s when more than 1,000 residents worked as loggers or in the old Edward Hines Lumber Co. sawmill.

Columbia Energy unfurls the promise of a new industry — and jobs: 150 during an estimated four years of construction, plus 50 to 75 for maintenance after that, said Chris Crowley, Columbia Energy’s president.

Audley said that’s hard to pass up. “There hasn’t been a significant economic investment in Harney County in a long time,” he said. “For better or worse, this is the only industry I know of that’s investing (an average of) $700 million (per wind project) in rural Oregon.”

Grasty said he’s not worried about losing tourism because of the wind turbines. County tourism has grown only 5 percent in 20 years, he said, and the wind farms will be contained.

“They are islands of private property in a sea of public land,” he said.

So far, only Columbia Energy’s first wind farm has been approved: the $300 million Echanis Wind Project, with 40 to 60 wind turbines across 10,000 acres. It’s expected to produce 104 megawatts, enough to power some 30,000 homes.
The project hinges on U.S. Bureau of Land Management approval of the transmission line, which has two possible configurations: a 29-mile line possibly paralleling an existing line that crosses the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just northwest of Steens Mountain, and a 46-mile line across mostly private land. Crowley expects to gain approval in the fall and launch construction on Echanis soon after.

Columbia Energy recently shelved its West Ridge and East Ridge wind projects headed for the Steens’ north flank, in the face of opposition from the Audubon Society of Portland and the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend.

Liz Nysson, spokeswoman for the desert association, said visitors will be appalled to find “industrial-scale wind development” on the slopes of Steens Mountain. The Echanis project, she said, also will be built on habitat for falcons, golden eagles and sage grouse, which is being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Bob Sallinger, the Portland Audubon Society’s conservation director, called the area “an incredibly valuable landscape from a wildlife standpoint.”

“We have a gold-rush mentality in this state about wind,” he said. “We could look back in 10 or 15 years and wish we had done it differently and more thoughtfully.”

Both groups also accuse Columbia Energy of dividing the Steens projects into three pieces of about 104 megawatts each to skirt the state scrutiny that kicks in for projects of 105 megawatts or more.

But Crowley insisted the projects are legitimately separate: “They are on separate pieces of property. They will have separate substations. They will have separate financing.”

He also said Columbia Energy won’t sit on the West and East Ridge projects for long. The company expects to begin construction on one in 2012 and the other in 2013, when it also plans to launch construction on the Riddle Mountain project. All three will be about the same size as Echanis.

Crowley marveled at the area’s wind power. During a 24-hour test Jan. 10, the company clocked an average wind speed on the Steens’ north side of 41 mph.

“There is nowhere else with a resource like this in Oregon,” he said.

Cattle rancher Hoyt Wilson, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about his decision to lease land to Columbia Energy for the Echanis project.

“It’s not something I’m looking forward to,” said Wilson, 67, as he stood in a chilly breeze last week outside the shop and office for his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch.

He remembers when cattle ranching was lucrative. “It used to be a lot of fun to ranch,” he said. “All you had to worry about was Mother Nature.”

But environmental lawsuits have forced the BLM to cut back on the number of cattle and amount of time they can graze on federal lands, pinching him and other ranchers, he said.

“It does you no good if you can run 1,000 cows on your own land for nine months, but you can only run 500 on BLM land for three months,” Wilson said. In other words, what happens to the other 500 cattle? Cows need so much room to graze, that even ranchers with significant land holdings rely on leasing federal lands for part of the year.

Wilson also worried that, after he and his wife die, his son and two daughters wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes on a property worth $4 million but generating no more than $60,000 a year in revenue.

The Columbia Energy deal will enable the family to keep the ranch intact and in the family. In exchange for a 20-year lease, he’ll receive a percentage of the gross sales from the wind farm’s output — about $5,000 to $7,000 a year per turbine.

“Windmills came along,” he said, “and, yeah, that is the way to make a buck.”

The economy comes into play for housing development as well. Under Measure 37, passed by voters in 2004 (and later scaled back by Measure 49), landowners could seek to develop their land under the rules in place at the time of purchase, or be compensated by county government for their economic loss.

But in Harney County, compensation is all but out of the question.

In 2007, for example, landowner Dan Jordan of Burns won the right under Measure 37 to build 640 homes below Fish Lake, a popular recreation site on Steens Mountain’s west side, after the county concluded it could hardly afford to pay him $6.4 million. Grasty said those plans were later scaled way back, and so far, Jordan hasn’t built anything.

Still, those who love the Steens’ open vistas and assume that the mountain is protected as wilderness might be surprised to learn how much of it rests in private hands.

The BLM manages 428,000 acres, including the 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, and the state administers 1,000 acres. But an additional 67,000 acres on and around the mountain are privately owned, and most of that is at low elevation suitable for homes.

The county’s land-use plan allows ranch or farm dwellings on tracts of at least 160 acres, said Grasty, the county chairman. Owners are expected to maintain some farming or ranching operations, but a local real estate broker, Randy Wilson, said keeping horses or a cow or two is enough.

Wilson, a broker with United Country-Clemens Real Estate in Hines and no relation to Hoyt Wilson, said he’s seeing interest among urbanites eager to escape to Harney County.

“Every week, I get people looking for property,” he said. “A lot of hunters, a lot of people looking to retire.” If they can get access to electricity and county approval to build on or near the mountain, he said, “people are going to jump all over it.”

John Witzel, an outfitter and former rancher who lives in Frenchglen just west of Steens Mountain, said he’s seen a marked shift in attitudes toward development.

Witzel, 51, and his wife, Cindy, were denied permission in 1997 to build 15 guest cabins and a 25-room lodge on the mountain’s west side. After they won Harney County approval to build a “career school” instead, the state Land Use Board of Appeals in 2001 overturned the decision.

“We couldn’t do that because of the viewshed,” Witzel said. “Things have changed, obviously.”

For hard-pressed ranchers, wind turbines are “a way to carry on and keep going,” he said. “I don’t think any of them want to look at windmills, but that’s the way it is.”

Richard Cockle – The Oregonian


Manure digester not all that Zillah dairy expected February 5, 2010

Filed under: Farm/Ranch,Methane Digesters,Washington — nwrenewablenews @ 7:38 pm
Tags: ,

Dan DeRuyter doubts he would do it again if he knew what he knows today.

The 42-year-old dairy producer east of Zillah operates the only manure digester in Eastern Washington, one of four currently operating in the state.

His 1.2-megawatt capacity digester may ultimately be the only one in a county where facilities like his that turn manure into electricity and usable products would appear to be a natural.

With 61 dairies and about 139,000 cows, Yakima County has the highest concentration of milk producers in the state, which carries with it the dubious distinction of being a large producer of manure.

A single dairy cow produces nearly 150 pounds of wet manure a day.

As a result, dairies are considered one of the culprits contributing to a groundwater contamination problem in the Lower Yakima Valley, where one out of every five wells has nitrate levels above what the federal government considers safe.

While the federal Environmental Protection Agency is trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination, some dairies are trying to find their own solutions, which led DeRuyter to explore what kind of a difference a digester could make on his manure output.

He was encouraged by local and state policymakers, but things aren’t turning out quite the way the models envisioned when he built the $3.8 million facility and began producing power more than three years ago.

DeRuyter, whose dairy has 3,000 cows, has run into a problem with Pacific Power, which has a contract to market his power at a rate of about 6.1 cents per kilowatt hour this year, or more than $1,700 per day. It is a six-month contract that began in November.

The utility argues that a tariff it proposed – ultimately approved by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission – prohibits it from paying him for more than 1 megawatt of electricity at that set rate.

The rate is designed to assure small start-up generators a firm rate to support their operations.

As it stands now, an interim renewal agreement allows DeRuyter to be paid for no more than 1 megawatt, enough power to light about 500 homes.

But DeRuyter needs to be able to market electricity at his capacity of 1.2 megawatts to make the project pencil out and provide a return on his investment.

His operation averaged under 1 megawatt during its first three years. Efficiencies have boosted his ability to generate more power.

Now he finds paying for and operating the digester is a draw on the equity in his farming operation. And it is occurring at the worst time, as dairy producers try to slog through a downturn in milk prices. Prices to dairy producers dropped nearly in half to $12 for 100 pounds early last year. Prices have since rebounded some.

“It’s a situation where they have me over a barrel and just don’t care,” argued DeRuyter, who has taken his case to state lawmakers.

Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt in Portland responded the utility is operating under rules established for it that can’t be ignored.

“Those are the rules we operate by. They can be changed and there are processes involved. We have been talking to the Legislature and talking about the administrative rules to make alterations,” he said. “I don’t think we are opposed to making changes. Until they happen, we have to work with the rules we have.”

“It’s not in our power to make an exception and pretend 1.2 megawatts is 1 megawatt,” he added.

State law and regulations that set out what utilities must do raise public policy questions about the role the state should play in encouraging renewable energy sources, especially in light of Initiative 937.

The initiative, approved by voters in 2007, required utilities such as Pacific Power to meet targets for the use of renewable energy resources in their portfolios.

The ultimate target is 15 percent renewables in the portfolio by 2020.

The commission, which regulates electricity, could modify the tariff rate by rule, but has not done so. Commissioners have to make sure that utility customers receive the best rates possible for power service.

Efforts to modify the system in the Legislature have failed because the various parties – producers and utilities – can’t agree, according to a state lawmaker who is working on the issue.

State Rep. John McCoy, a Tulalip Democratic lawmaker and chair of the Technology, Energy and Communication Committee, said he sympathizes with DeRuyter’s predicament. But right now there’s not consensus to move forward.

“I want to fix that. We have to keep plugging away,” McCoy said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want the DeRuyters to go away. I have talked about anaerobic digesters for years. Now, legislators are starting to get it. I still can’t get the utilities to come around.”

Dairy operators in Yakima County and elsewhere are watching.

Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, said DeRuyter’s experience is sending the wrong message to others about building a digester to expand uses for the huge amount of manure created every day in Yakima County.

“It needs to be where we can show this will give you a return on investment and not lose your shirt,” Gordon said. “This sends a loud message to farmers and energy companies there is some risk.”

The digester on DeRuyter’s dairy is composed of a huge concrete-lined digester, a 3.3 million-gallon tank that mostly sits below ground level and an engine room with two 900-horsepower motors.

About 150,000 gallons of manure are flushed into the system every day.

Heat is applied to activate microbes that feed on the manure, creating methane. The methane is used to power the motors that turn a generator and create electricity.

Byproducts include a bedding material he uses for his cattle and fertilizer. The bedding material also could replace peat moss for nursery companies. Other uses for the byproduct also are being looked at, such as wood pellets and plywood.

DeRuyter also said the digester has reduced odors from the dairy, something about which his neighbors have commented to him.

Other digester operators in the state are faring better, primarily because they are in the Puget Sound Energy service area.

Kevin Maas, president of Farm Power Northwest LLC, a company that is operating a digester for two farmers in Mount Vernon in Skagit County, said Puget Sound is paying for power up to two megawatts – Puget’s tariff limit – at a rate that started last year at 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour and rises over the next nine years to 12 cents per kilowatt hour. The other two digesters are located in Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

The cap of two megawatts represents what is known as Puget Sound Energy’s avoided cost, what the investor-owned utility would have to pay to generate the energy itself or purchase the energy from someone else.

In Pacific Power’s case, its avoided cost is 1 megawatt.

Pacific Power officials say any production above the 1 megawatt must be submitted under a request for proposals process by which rates are set on a competitive basis and generally are lower.

But Maas argues Pacific Power is doing only the minimum it is required to do.

“The regulations don’t require them to do anything more than the minimum and that is what they are doing with Dan,” Maas said.

DeRuyter said Pacific Power could approach the commission to modify its existing tariff or seek an exception to allow it to go beyond the 1-megawatt limit.

But the utility would have to do that for all producers, said Tom Schooley, accounting manager in the commission’s energy section.

Maas points to Oregon, where utilities are required to offer longer-term contracts and accept power from generators up to 10 megawatts.

“The state government could change all of this by doing the same thing as Oregon,” he said. “It is something the Legislature could solve if it weren’t distracted by a $2.6 billion shortfall.”

The issue is getting a renewed look by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

The last chance for a legislative fix died last week when a McCoy bill that sought to modify Initiative 937 died.

The dairy federation’s Gordon said should nothing change in the current, short legislative session, he may try to start a between-session dialogue on the issue.

“My plan is to put together a letter to the UTC and send it out to the utilities asking why we have such a low tariff rate on renewables and can we change that to what we have in Western Washington?”

DAVID LESTER, Yakima Herald-Republic


Study suggests burning wood pellets in place of coal can be cost-Effective February 1, 2010

Filed under: Biomass,Farm/Ranch,Oregon,Utility Companies,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 2:15 pm

A recent study concludes that burning biomass in place of coal, such as Portland General Electric is considering for its Boardman power plant, can be cost-effective.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, looked at replacing all or part of the coal supplying power plants in Ontario, Canada, and it found that co-firing with wood pellets and coal was a realistic way to reduce a plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A mix of 90 percent coal, 10 percent pellets would increase the cost of electricity from the two test plants’ by 0.6 and 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour, the study says, while significantly reducing the amount of climate-changing gasses they produce.

“If 10% co-firing were to be implemented in all coal (plants) in the United States and Canada, electricity generation from biomass could contribute approximately 4% of annual generation of the two countries (185 of 4660 TWh), reducing GHG emissions by 170 million metric tons/year, 5% of emissions from the two countries’ electricity sectors,” the study says.

Read about PGE’s plans for biomass at its Boardman coal-fired power plant here.

“The results suggest that electricity produced from biomass in existing coal GS should be considered, along with other alternatives, as a means of achieving near-term GHG reductions,” it says.

But there are limits to how many pellets forests can sustainable supply, the study cautions.

(Hat tip to Green Inc.)

Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian –


More on possible biomass plant conversion in Boardman, Ore.

Portland General Electric has three options for its Boardman power plant: close it, stop burning coal there, or make costly upgrades to clean up emissions.

Most of the debate about Boardman, Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant and the state’s largest single source of air pollution, has focused not on whether, but when, it should shut down. But the utility is looking at the possibility of keeping Boardman open by burning biomass instead of coal to spin its turbines.

They aren’t the only utility considering replacing some of their coal with plant material, but they are among the few thinking about doing away with coal entirely by using biomass, said Christopher Wright,  a research engineer and biomass energy specialist at the Idaho National Laboratory.

“In that regard, they are on the forefront of that thinking when we look out on the landscape,” Wright said.

Coal-fired power plants in Europe, charged with reducing emissions of climate-changing gasses, are already replacing portions of their coal with wood pellets imported from British Columbia, the southeastern United States and elsewhere.

“Once the Europeans realized that that was a fairly cost efficient way to meet the goals for renewable energy standards, the demand started to grow very rapidly over the last four or five years,” said Keith Balter, senior economist with Forest Capital Partners in Portland.

North America’s pellet industry has grown from having the capacity to produce about 1 million metric tons in 2003 to an estimated 6 million tons last year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

U.S. coal plant owners see similar regulations on the horizon, so utilities like PGE are considering mixing wood pellets with coal in their boilers.

“We’re actually looking at doing some co-firing with green pellets in the very near future, just as a test,” said Jaisen Mody,  director of generation projects for PGE.

Right now, Oregon’s wood pellet industry is focused on home-heating stoves and animal bedding products.

Andrew Haden,  vice-president of A3 Energy Partners, a Portland pellet-for-energy company, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that if just 15 percent of Boardman’s energy needs came from biomass, that would require about 500,000 tons of pellets year.

“That would mean a doubling or even tripling of Oregon’s pellet production,” Haden said.

Assuming testing at Boardman goes well, and they could find enough pellets, the Portland-based utility estimates it can replace up to 20 percent of the coal at their 585-megwatt Boardman plant with wood pellets similar to those used to heat homes.

While that would drop Boardman’s contribution to climate change, PGE would still need to install expensive upgrades at the plant to comply with clean air laws, which is what prompted the utility’s recent announcement it could close the plant by 2020, about 20 years ahead of schedule, or switch to an alternative fuel.

“When you replace all the coal with biomass, you could reduce the amount of that equipment substantially,” said Mody.

View full sizeSo PGE is looking at whether it can replace all of the millions of tons of coal it burns a year at Boardman with plant material that has been pre-treated through a still experimental process called torrefaction.

In torrefaction, plant material is roasted at high temperatures – 200 to 300 degrees Celsius – until it becomes a dry, high energy substance similar to the Kingsford charcoal you might use to grill steaks on your Weber.

This so-called torrefied biomass can be easily converted to pellets, making it easy to haul and simple to burn at pulverized coal plants like Boardman.

“This acts like coal and behaves like coal,” Wayne Lei,  director of research and development at PGE.

But it’s not nearly as easy to find as coal.

There are no commercial-scale torrefaction facilities in the U.S. And PGE estimates it would need about 2 million tons of torrefied biomass a year to operate Boardman, which supplies about 15 percent of the energy used by its more than 800,000 customers.

And though the torrefied material has a high energy content, it requires significant energy to produce, calling into question whether it’s a truly renewable resource.

“At this point, it doesn’t seem realistic, because torrefaction is really in an experimental phase and not at a commercial scale,” said Cesia Kearns,  an anti-coal activist with the Sierra Club.

Kearns said PGE should focus on a mix of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency initiatives to replace Boardman’s power production. The utility could also replace part of Boardman’s output with new natural gas plants.

“It’s not going to be a silver bullet, but rather silver buckshot” that replaces Boardman, Kearns said.

Mody said that torrefied biomass, what little there is, costs from $100-120 per ton, roughly three to four times coal hauled by rail from Wyoming.

A big part of that price difference is the cost of transporting the biomass to Boardman.

Lei, PGE’s research chief, said the answer to the supply question could lie in a tall, reed-like grass called Arundo donax, or giant cane.

Californians know the plant as an imported species that has run wild along some of their waterways, causing extensive environmental damage. But PGE thinks the plant can be safely grown as a crop in Oregon and converted to fuel for Boardman.

They would need to convince enough farmers that it’s in their economic interest to grow a lot of giant cane, about 90,000 irrigated acres worth. Morrow County, home to Boardman, has a total of 89,897 acres of irrigated farmland planted in food crops.

“Can they routinely, sustainably get that amount every year from the Oregon countryside?” said Wright of the Idaho national lab.

That’s just one of the questions PGE will consider as it spends the next several years planning for Boardman’s future, or lack thereof.

Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian