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Giant Reed May Replace Coal As Boardman Plant Fuel

Portland General Electric is looking into biomass crops that might provide an alternative to coal, as it looks for ways to close its power plant near Boardman.

One of the crops it’s looking at is giant reed. But as Simon Boas reports, not everybody believes it’s desirable to grow this plant in Oregon.

What you’re hearing is a plant called giant reed grass, also known as giant cane or by its Latin name Arundo Donax. Carolyn Kolb grows and sells the plant at her nursery in Salem.

Carolyn Kolb: “We cut this clear down to the ground, about six inches from the ground, every spring, and it grows 16 feet in one year.”

Kolb sells the giant reed as ornamental grass for gardens. The plant doesn’t grow much in Oregon, so the only other place you might see it is when it’s already cut into reeds for woodwind instruments.

That might change soon.

Portland General Electric wants to plant up to 300 acres of giant reed in Morrow and Umatilla counties to see if it’s a viable biomass crop for its power plant near Boardman.

Boardman produces 15 percent of the power that PGE sells. But the plant is one of the biggest polluters in the Northwest. Right now the Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing PGE’s proposals for shuttering the plant by 2020.

Jaisen Mody is a general manager for generation projects at PGE.

Jaisen Mody: “If PGE gets our 2020 plan, which we are promoting, then we have some time to look at alternatives for Boardman. And biomass would be one of the alternatives we would consider as part of our resource plan.“

And growing giant reed for biomass looks promising. Don Horneck researches the plant for Oregon State University. He says it produces a lot of biomass since the whole plant can be burned as fuel.

Don Horneck:  “The characteristics that make good biomass production are relatively good competition, in other words doesn’t let other things intrude on its growth habit, relatively good disease and pest resistance, and perennial stature. So it’s a perennial crop that you don’t have to seed every year.”

But giant reed does have its risks. In the right climate the plant can be an aggressive noxious weed.

Problems with it spreading uncontrollably in California prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to study the weed in 2007.

Noxious Weed Control Program Supervisor Tim Butler says the plant would not be a problem in Oregon, because it doesn’t flower this far north. Without flowers, it can only spread by root fragments.

Tim Butler: “From our perspective, if something is truly invasive and has a significant threat as far as agriculture and our natural resources in this state, then we would want to take action on that. But we just feel that there’s not enough evidence at this point to show that giant reed grass is a significant risk.”

Researchers at Washington State University say the plant did not spread when they grew a test crop in Prosser, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Boardman.

But not everyone is convinced that giant reed would be safe to grow on a large scale in Oregon. Dan Durfey heads the Umatilla County Weed Control department. He’s concerned the plant’s roots still make it dangerous.

Dan Durfey: “I’m kind of up in the air about it. We have enough problems with noxious weeds to begin with. When it becomes a plant for a bio fuel then I don’t know which way to go.”

Even though the state doesn’t see giant reed as a problem, the counties still have the authority to decide which plants they will allow to grow. And this makes all the difference for PGE and the Boardman power plant.

If the giant reed crop is grown more than 50 miles away from the power plant, PGE says the cost of and pollution caused by transporting the biomass would undercut the crop’s benefits.

County commissioners will make the final decision for the two counties.

Morrow County Commissioner Terry Tallman says he has an open mind about growing giant reed in his county.

Terry Tallman: “I know that it has been grown in Washington already. I have also been told that it’s been grown down toward the Milton-Freewater area. And I’ve been told it’s not really presented any problems in those areas. So I’d like to confirm what’s the truth of the matter.”

Umatilla County Commissioners failed to return requests for comment.

PGE will present its plan for growing giant reed to commissioners from Morrow and Umatilla counties Tuesday. The decision about whether either of the counties will designate giant reed a noxious weed could come later this fall.

PGE officials say they will explore other renewable energy options for the Boardman power plant if they if they can’t grow giant reed in these counties.