Biomass Fuels Spark Interest
by Debby Schoeningh, Freelance Writer
BAKER CITY, Ore. - Speakers from throughout Oregon came to a conference last month to discuss a range of alternative energy options, from biomass and biodiesel to small wind farms and fuels for schools.
Randy Joseph, of Baker County energy task force and coordinator of the conference, said people focus on the technology surrounding alternative energy, and "take my word for it, the technology is there and it works. Everything presented here is doable and is being done."
Several speakers discussed the different forms of biomass fuel, which is produced by waste timber and agricultural materials that are collected and can be recycled into energy. They are all viable sources of energy that can be used to power everything from TV sets and hair dryers to heat and air conditioning in homes, schools and hospitals.
Rick Wagner with the Oregon Department of Forestry in La Grande, said forest biomass is waste or excess that comes from the forests, in all sizes, from all species of trees including softwoods and hardwoods, as well as some brush. Pallets, old lumber, trees, limbs, debris and commercial orchard prunings, he said, are all characterized as forest biomass.
"Some way, somehow that stuff needs to have something done with it," said Wagner.
Wagner gave an example of how forest biomass could be used. Several years ago the south side of the Baker City watershed was logged, leaving a huge slash pile. A landowner in the Elk Creek area was contracted to put 5,000 tons of material on his property, which covered nearly 2 acres. He said the slash was burned where it was piled, but "this pile could have fueled the Baker High School for 10 years."
Corey Parsons, Oregon State University agriculture extension agent in Baker County, said Union, Baker and Wallowa counties could potentially utilize 75,189 tons of cereal straw and grass-seed straw residue as biomass fuel. As with any type of agriculture crop though, he said the available biomass depends on the year and the growing conditions.
He said much of the crop residue is already utilized as livestock bedding, feed and windbreaks by producers, but the biomass potential is there.
Scott Fairley, a natural resource specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the three counties could also generate about 4,000 tons a year of urban biomass from yard debris and recyclable household products. He said for each ton brought into recycling centers you could figure about a half ton is being burned or disposed of by other means.
He said there is also the potential for another 12,222 tons of paper products that could be utilized from the three counties as biomass fuel, but with inks and coatings, burning these products would cause air quality concerns.
Dave Atkins, of the Forest Service and program manager for Fuels for Schools, spoke via telephone. He said what can be done with biomass waste is to burn it, chip it, leave it or use it. He said using biomass for fuel would reduce the amount of smoke from burning, would be much more aesthetically appealing, would reduce the cost to treat the land and would save on heat and power bills, as well as creating jobs and small business opportunities.
He said there are currently three types of systems used for producing biomass energy - a large fully automated facility, a surge bin, which is smaller and cheaper, or a pellet system. He said the automated system is too expensive for small schools, and the pellet system is cheaper to install and burns more cleanly, but the fuel is twice as costly.
He said schools are currently averaging between seven and eight years' payback for a system but with the gas prices on the rise it may be more like five or six years, and this is with no outside funding help. More often than not, he said schools that use a biomass system are replacing an old worn out system and compared to other heating/cooling systems, the biomass system can be installed at a net reduction.
He said Fuels for Schools systems won't work everywhere. There has to be community support, proximity to biomass fuel and processing and delivery infrastructure. He said other considerations were the adequacy of the existing system, the construction and integration costs and air quality.
And air quality, he said, can benefit from using biomass. The duration and density of the smoke caused from either burning forest debris or from forest fires can be reduced by removing some of the fuel from the forest prior to the occurrence of natural or prescribed fires.
"This is not your old woodstove," he said. "You get very complete combustion. This is not something brand new, it has been used in New England for 15 to 20 years. We are putting in adjustments for schools and hospitals, but it's not like we are starting from scratch."
To learn more about Fuels for Schools visit www.fuels forschools.org.
Whether biomass energy will be used locally for schools or other facilities remains to be seen, but Wagner said, "The northeast Oregon biomass fuel supply is plentiful and definitely sustainable. I'm absolutely convinced that by incorporating urban, forest and possibly ag waste, this area could support at least one 10 megawatt plant."
He asked the group gathered at the conference, "Are we going to live in a reactive world and pay the consequences or live in a proactive world and take the dividends?"
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