Converting Oregon Coal Plant to Biomass Stokes Controversy

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By Paul Shukovsky

Oct. 28 — Plans to convert a coal-fired power plant in Oregon into what would be the nation’s largest biomass facility will be tested before year’s end when 8,000 tons of toasted wood thinned from a national forest is burned to ensure compatibility with the power plant’s equipment.

Portland General Electric is considering whether it can use renewable feed stock to forestall a planned the decommissioning of the Boardman, Ore., plant in 2020 that has been in the works since 2010.

The investor-owned utility also sees conversion to biomass as a potential means of meeting its obligation under an Oregon bill enacted in March that accelerates compliance requirements for the renewable portfolio standards, PGE spokesman Steve Corson told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27. The Oregon bill requires at least half the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2040.

Although conversion to biomass would mean sourcing sustainable fuel like wood or agricultural feed stock instead of coal, a coalition of environmental groups is concerned that substituting carbon-emitting coal for carbon-emitting wood—cut from a forest where living trees sequester carbon dioxide—will not achieve the goal of slowing climate change.

Carbon Neutrality ‘Loophole.’

At the crux of the issue is whether the biomass in question—torrefied wood—is truly sustainable and carbon neutral. Wood thinned from the forest must either regenerate itself or be replanted after harvest to maintain equilibrium. The wood is torrefied, heated at temperatures of 200 to 350 decrees Celsius, to turn it into a material with properties not unlike coal. The utility also has worked with academic partners such as Washington State University to explore the use of other torrefied feed stocks like giant cane, Arundo donax.

“If projects like Boardman were to go forward, we would see the biomass industry shift from waste feedstock to a feedstock relying on extra thinning projects in the forest,” Sierra Club conservation organizer Alexander Harris told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27. “We would see trees harvested and combusted that would otherwise remain in the forest, sequestering carbon for decades.”

Corson, the utility spokesman, said: “Oregon has a lot of work to be done in the area of forest health in terms of trimming and disposing of dead wood and excess wood in the forests. That presents not only an opportunity to find something to do with that material, but also as a way to avoid having the material burning anyway in catastrophic fires where you will not only release the carbon, but you’ll also release the particulates that go with forest fires in a way that is far less controlled then if you do it in a power plant where we have emissions controls.”

A coalition of 23 conservation groups, including Sierra Club, Audubon Society of Portland and WildEarth Guardians, is also deeply concerned that extending the life of older coal plants with fewer environmental controls by transforming them into biomass plants will supplant zero-carbon electricity sources such as solar. And in an Oct. 12 letter to Oregon’s Democrat Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, the coalition appealed for the lawmakers to excise language from the pending Energy Policy Modernization Act (S.2012) and the Interior appropriations bill that would essentially declare as scientific fact that forest biomass harvested under certain conditions is carbon neutral. Harris called it the carbon-neutrality “loophole.”

‘Need to Go Through the Science.’

“We are concerned about the energy bill’s language that directs federal agencies to ‘establish consistent policies’ that ‘reflect the carbon neutrality’ of wood energy and the language in the appropriations bill that exempts biomass carbon emissions from ‘regulation, control, or action’” by the Environmental Protection Agency, the letter said.

A Democratic staff member to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee told Bloomberg BNA that not a single member of the Senate objected to the amendment containing the biomass carbon neutrality language before the energy bill passed with broad bipartisan support. When Congress reconvenes after the general election, the bill will be reconciled in a conference committee with the House version, which does not contain the neutrality language, the staff member said.

Wyden, who is a member of both the Energy Committee and the conference committee, told Bloomberg BNA in an Oct. 28 e-mail: “I have been talking to stakeholders on all sides and working with my colleagues on the energy bill conference to find a solution that ensures that any biomass policy is rooted in science, is bipartisan, and moves Oregon and the entire country to a smarter carbon policy. I look forward to continuing to work on that final product when Congress returns next month.”

Merkley did not reply to e-mail and telephone requests for comment Oct. 28.

Matt Krumenauer, chief executive officer of Oregon Torrefaction LLC, which is providing the torrified wood that will be used in the pending test burn at PGE’s Boardman plant, said there is still a lot of basic science to work to be done to determine what type of biomass and what technology meet carbon dioxide reduction goals.

“I think what we’ll find is that there are various degrees of carbon implications based on the type of feedstock used,” he said. “My take on this is that we need to go through the science and we really need to understand what those carbon implications are, and then we can make decisions on what type of sourcing practices we would have to have to be consistent with our carbon-reduction goals.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at PShukovsky@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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