PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Cleaning up forest clutter might be good for more than just curtailing large wildfires in Oregon.
It might just be the answer Portland General Electric is looking for to convert the Boardman Coal Plant to 100 percent biomass.
Later this year, PGE will use nothing but woody debris to power the station for one full day as the utility continues to test alternative fuels at the 550-megawatt facility. A successful test burn was conducted last year at Boardman using a 10-to-1 mix of coal and biomass, which has project leaders feeling optimistic. But this will be the first time the plant is fed exclusively biomass for 24 straight hours, which will go a long way toward determining whether the plan is feasible long-term.
The future remains uncertain at Oregon's only remaining coal-fired power plant. Rather than install expensive new emission controls, PGE has decided to either convert the station to cleaner burning biomass, or shut it down entirely by 2020.
Wayne Lei, director of research and development for PGE, said biomass is an intriguing though challenging concept for Boardman. First, in order to feed biomass into the plant's pulverizers, it must undergo a process called torrefaction — similar to making charcoal, or roasting coffee beans.
The result is a dry, crispy material that can be ground up and burned as fuel.
"It's about a half-step below making charcoal," Lei said.
At its peak generating capacity, the Boardman Coal Plant blasts through roughly 300 tons of coal every hour. Since torrefied biomass behaves similarly to coal, that means it will take 8,000 tons to keep the facility humming for a full day.
To get that kind of supply, PGE has partnered with a newly incorporated company called Oregon Torrefaction, which will use small-diameter and beetle-killed trees to create the final product. The full day test burn will be conducted later this year.
Oregon Torrefaction registered as a benefit corporation with the state July 1, incorporating environmental quality into its bottom line. Its partners include the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Ochoco Lumber Company, based in Prineville.
Bruce Daucsavage, president of Ochoco Lumber, said their goal is to prove torrefied biomass can become a viable and sustainable commercial business in Oregon, providing rural jobs while also improving forest health.
"There's so much interest in this," Daucsavage said. "The technology is already proven."
With the decline of the timber markets, Ochoco Lumber now owns the last remaining sawmill in John Day. The company was rejuvenated in 2012 by a 10-year stewardship contract with the Malheur National Forest, purchasing wood off federal restoration projects at fair market value.
However, Daucsavage said a significant portion of what's harvested from those projects can't be used at the lumber mill. The trees are either too small or too damaged to make boards. They could be chipped, but those markets aren't worth enough for Ochoco Lumber to turn a profit.
On the other hand, if the clutter isn't harvested, it will simply dry out and become nothing more than kindling for explosive wildfires, like last year's Canyon Creek Complex. Torrefaction could be the solution, Daucsavage said, especially if biomass can gain traction as a coal substitute.
"It's a really interesting green story," he said.
The majority of biomass for the PGE project will come off national forests, Daucsavage said. Oregon Torrefaction is in the process of installing a large torrefier at a chipping yard in the Port of Morrow, and from there the material will be trucked eight miles to the Boardman Coal Plant.
It will take approximately 800 truckloads to deliver all 8,000 tons of biomass. Daucsavage said they hope to start torrefaction in the next few days. "The idea is to invest dollars back into forest health and rural communities," Daucsavage said.
Matt Krumenauer, of Salem, is the CEO of Oregon Torrefaction. He said the project with PGE is a perfect opportunity to see if the markets for biomass and utilities can match.
"PGE was already planning to cease coal operations," Krumenauer said. "They've been the most progressive and most interested in seeing if this could be a viable alternative energy solution for them."
Brendan McCarthy, PGE's state environmental policy manager, said a number of factors will come into play before they decide whether biomass in Boardman makes sense for ratepayers. Cost and supply of the fuel is all part of the equation, as well as what it would take to retrofit the plant's emission controls for a new power source.
If the full day test burn is successful, the next step will be to see if biomass can be used to power the plant for multiple days in a row. So far, McCarthy said they are encouraged by what they're seeing but it will continue to be a major effort moving forward.
"It's complicated," McCarthy said. "You can see how creating this whole new way of energy, you really need to work through everything."
Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.com