ASHLAND, Ore. — Southern Oregon University is vying to join a small but growing number of campuses around the country turning to biomass energy — or put more simply, burning wood and forest debris — to produce power on campus.
The project would be the first of its kind in any Northwest state.
Biomass hasn’t exactly had the warm welcome of other low-carbon energy sources. Controversy still exists about just how “green” burning wood and plant matter actually is. Combustion results in the release of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
Tucked away on the backside of Southern Oregon University is a modest 1950s-era warehouse. Puffs of cloud-white steam emerge from the smokestack on top. They’re a result of burning natural gas to produce heat for the campus.
Many, if not most, large universities in the U.S. produce at least some of their own energy. It’s just cheaper. But when boilers age and fail, like two at SOU have done in the past five years, people like Facilities Manager Drew Gilliland have a choice to make.
“Of course we’ve been able to make the repairs to keep them going. Like a good ol’ car, you can keep making repairs as long as you can,” Gilliland said. “But they’re not very efficient.”
At this point, Gilliland says it makes more sense to replace the boilers and to use the opportunity to rethink Southern Oregon’s use of natural gas.
“That’s a dirty little secret about natural gas is when it’s cheap, these large producers of electricity will switch to that for their fuel. And then, of course, as it gets higher they’ll go back to coal,” Gilliland said.
That means even though natural gas production in the U.S. and Canada has been booming, prices continue to be volatile, responding instantly to market conditions. Gilliland is faced with this every year as he contracts for natural gas with local utility Avista.
“That’s why as we look at our fuel costs, we want something that’s a little more reliable and local,” he said.
The idea: build a new steam heat and electricity (called cogeneration) facility that gets away from fossil fuels. Their answer is biomass.
But Is It Better?
SOU studied several options and decided burning woody biomass sourced within 50 miles of campus would be cheaper than natural gas.
An added bonus is that, if done right, biomass can be a low-carbon energy source, said Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“There’s good biomass and there’s bad biomass from a carbon emissions perspective and it’s really critical to distinguish between the two,” she said.
Hammel said logging whole trees specifically to burn results in more carbon emissions in the short and medium terms. But using slash – the leftovers from already existing logging operations that would decay quickly or be burned on-site – is a much more carbon-friendly option.
The latter is what Southern Oregon University intends to do.
But the question remains whether burning any wood to generate electricity is any better than burning natural gas, or even coal.
A 2010 study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Massachusetts found that biomass has a higher initial carbon debt. Because it takes more biomass material than coal to produce the same amount of heat, there’s initially more carbon released into atmosphere.
The carbon debt of biomass is paid down as forests regrow, but that could take years or even decades. For those focused on how much carbon is in the air and contributing to climate change today, biomass is not the best option.
Of course the exact accounting of the carbon impact of biomass depends on several factors: what kind of material is used, how and why that material was harvested, what would be done with the material if it isn’t burned in a biomass power facility?
Oregon State University Forestry Professor David Smith argues that slash material left in the forest would be burned or left to decay anyway.
“But if we divert the material to a biomass boiler, we can capture that energy as it goes through the cycle,” said Smith.
Smith is a big-picture kind of guy. Climate cycles are long, so he looks long as well. For him, it all comes down to net carbon in the atmosphere.
Burning fossil fuels adds to the net by releasing carbon that was geologically sequestered before humans removed it from the ground. Burning plant matter only releases carbon that was already in the cycle, and that will be sequestered again in a relatively short period of time.
The Biomass Bandwagon
Looking for low-carbon options has become somewhat of an obsession of institutions of higher ed across the country. Nearly 700 have signed up for the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment – setting a carbon neutrality target date and taking steps to meet it.
Brett Pasinella is with the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. He said universities go through a progression when trying to reach carbon goals. They start with efficiency and move on to changing behaviors on campus.
“But then after that, then you have to really look at how you’re generating heat and electricity on campus or where you’re purchasing from and start making changes to your energy system,” he said.
Many campuses are installing solar panels, but generally the space available is limited. Southern Oregon’s Gilliland said the university has already maxed out all feasible roof space for solar on its sunny Ashland campus and the power produced is not even close to enough to cover campus needs.
Some universities have even installed wind turbines. But that may not be an option, depending wind, campus footprint and location.
More and more colleges and universities are now considering biomass operations for their campus. Pasinella said 17 have already gone this route, accounting for 41 percent of all on-campus renewable power generation in 2012. The largest campus operations are in the Northeast, with Colby College in Maine and Colgate University in New York topping the list annual power production.
But despite the broad availability of fuel, campus biomass has yet to make it to Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
In 2011, the University of Montana withdrew its biomass proposal after the community rallied against it. An administrator at the university called local conservation groups’ efforts to block permits “low-level eco-terrorism.” The University was stuck dealing with the fallout.
Southern Oregon wants to avoid this kind of outcome and recently held a public meeting to address local concerns. Most of the questions focused on pollution and the poor air quality in the Rogue Valley.
Talent resident Steven Petrovic questioned the biomass proposal, saying already pollution in the Rogue Valley is visible from the hiking trails above Ashland.
“Having a plant that could potentially feed into the air pollution – it could be problematic,” he said.
The Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon is an Air Quality Maintenance Area. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that particulate matter pollution in the Valley was unhealthy to breath. Geography, weather, wood stoves, burning at timber and agriculture operations and a major highway corridor contributed to the poor air quality.
A plan was put in place to curb emissions and by the early 2000s the air quality had drastically improved on an annual basis. Those pollution reduction steps remained in effect, and still effect industries that want to open shop in the valley.
Although the air quality is better now wildfire smoke often drifts in during the summer. And there are times in the winter when temperature inversions stagnate air in the Rogue Valley.
Ashland resident John Fisher-Smith said he wears masks when the amount of particulate matter is high. He worried how yet another source of particulate matter will effect the quality of life in his hometown.
“Why not make public health in Ashland the primary, first criteria and go from there?” he asked.
The Road Ahead
Looking up at the large boilers currently heating SOU, Drew Gilliland said, bottom line, biomass is good economics. But it will also catapult the university far beyond most on climate goals.
“We’re excelling. We do have modern facilities, we are really thinking about the future, and impact on the environment,” he said.
The road ahead for the SOU biomass cogeneration plant is still uncertain. The university will make a decision early next year whether to take its request to the Oregon Legislature for plant construction money. Then there’s a stack of permit applications, contract negotiations and environmental and traffic studies to get through.
If it all goes smoothly, officials hope to have the plant up and running by 2017. But Gilliland said he’s trying not to get too attached to the project, in case things go sour. The university said a biomass power plant on campus would offset about 90 percent of SOU’s emissions, which brings it almost all the way to its goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. And that, Gilliland said, is something that reflects well on the entire Southern Oregon University community.
“So, yeah. Is that a sense of pride?” he asked. “Darn right it is.”