Biomass boils to top of county, state, federal agendas

Feb. 26, 2011

Neither Hood River County nor the State of Oregon has much money to spare these days.

To make up for the dwindling dollars, both are turning to a resource they have plenty of: wood.

While timber revenues for the state and county have collapsed in recent years, the forest product industry and local governments throughout the state are pushing forward with a new attempt to make use of the state's supply of timber through the use of woody biomass.

Gov. Ted Kitzhaber recently announced an effort by several state agencies to offer grants to Oregon forest product companies who submit proposals for woody biomass power generation projects at their facilities.

This week the Hood River County Board of Commissioners was presented with a report on a project to install biomass boilers in the county administration building and courthouse.

The county is considering the project but will wait for a final revision of the report before the commissioners vote.

Woody biomass is essentially the leftovers of the forest world, whether as a byproduct of timber products or as natural debris on the forest floor. It can also be generated through other means, such as the trimming of orchard fruit trees.

The types of biomass that can be burned for energy is split into two types: pellet and woody debris. Pellet biomass is essentially refined sawdust, compacted into an easily burnable pellet.

For example, Bear Mountain Forest Products in Cascade Locks focuses on pellet products, which are used in everything from industrial sized boilers to barbecues.

Meanwhile, woody debris is what is left on the forest floor either naturally or during a timber operation. That debris can be turned into wood chips and burned as fuel. Matt Krumenauer, who is heading up the grant project for the Oregon Department of Energy, said the project meets multiple goals for the state.

"We want to keep our fire risk low," he said. "Also, a lot our rural communities have a heritage with forestry."

Wood chip biomass does not require as much refinement as pellet biomass, so it is less expensive, but it also does not burn as efficiently as pellet-based biomass.

Biomass boilers at forest product companies would essentially turn them into self-sustaining operations by using a resource they are creating to power their operations to manufacture more of that resource.

The state is hoping the project will turn into a jobs creator.

"We've already gotten some positive feedback," Krumenauer said. "There is an increased demand for biomass."

The biomass efforts in both the state and county have gotten a federal boost recently. Last month the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was deferring a permitting requirement for industrial biomass burning for three years to allow for further research on use of biomass as an alternative energy fuel source.

"I am pleased the Obama Administration recognizes the value of biomass as a renewable energy source," Kitzhaber said in a statement at the time. "This is good news for forest health on the east side and the west side as well as rural economic development in Oregon."

This week, the federal agency announced a less stringent set of regulations to cut pollution on industrial boilers, significantly reducing the cost of installation and maintenance for those projects, which include biomass boilers.

"It seems like a common sense ruling that both protects the public health and provides flexibility for biomass," said Tim Raphael, the governor's communication director.

The Hood River County Board of Commissioners were presented with options for those type of boilers during their monthly work sessions Tuesday evening.

McKinistry, a design and construction firm specializing in energy efficiency, presented the county with a proposal to install two boilers, which can each burn either chip or pellet woody biomass, to replace aging boilers in the county administration building.

Matt Treat, the project manager, told the county commissioners the project was originally envisioned as a district heating project, with a large boiler based downtown to provide energy to county buildings and to use surplus energy to other nearby buildings.

However, he said that idea was not yet practical, and that such projects are still in their infancy in Europe, which is considerably ahead of the U.S. in biomass development.

Despite having to only consider a smaller-scale project for the time being, county Administrator David Meriwether said the county would still look to make full use of its biomass resources going forward by exploring a district heating and power project.

"I think that even if we did this now we certainly would not close the door on anything in the future," he said.

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