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The Switch: Could Oregon’s Trees Make Us Energy Exporter?

 The Switch

When you flip the switch, where does your power come from?
And what will power Northwest homes and businesses in the future?
We're asking these questions and more for our special series The Switch.

Just like last summer, gas prices have soared again and Oregon is near the national high – about $2.81 per gallon.

Which brings us to OPB’s energy series, The Switch.

Today we’re going to look at the energy source that preceded fossil fuels, and is back again for an encore — Wood.

Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports now that Oregon’s forests may have a real energy future – as biomass.

The dictionary defines biomass as living matter in one area.

But the second definition for biomass is what could give Oregon a leading role in the next century.

“Plant materials and animal waste used a source of fuel.”

Using plant and tree materials for energy is good news for Oregon.

Half of the state is forest-land.

But like this national forest between Bend and Sisters, many of Oregon’s forests are unhealthy.

Between a century of fire suppression and decades of environmental opposition to logging – the tree stands here are too thick and too dry.

Phil Chang: “We have stands where there’s 300, 400, 500 small trees all competing with each other and stressing each other out.”

Phil Chang works on natural resources for the central Oregon Intergovernmental Council.

Phil Chang: “If you try to eliminate some of those extra trees, that byproduct of that thinning is biomass. Our current practice is to dispose of hundreds-of-thousands of tons of that biomass per year through pile burning. Chop all of that material into little pieces, pile it, and then stand around and burn it.”

Those piles of biomass used to be considered trash, just fuel for a bonfire.

But suddenly now, biomass represents real, albeit untapped, energy.

Phil Chang: “The irony of the situation is, you could be someone who lives in Sisters, who is looking out your windows at millions of BTUs of energy going up in smoke, in one of these piles, and then you turn around and behind you is your furnace, where you are burning heating oil imported from Saudi Arabia.”

Which is why many hope Oregon could become “the Saudi Arabia” of biomass.

But that’s easier said than done.

Remember, people were calling Iowa the “Saudi Arabia” of corn ethanol just a few years back.

Now, factories are shuttered, corn prices have shot up, and most scientists see major flaws in turning corn into gas.

 Jay Holthus
 Jay Holthus

In the state of Oregon, millions-of-dollars were invested in corn ethanol.

Three major industrial power plants were built.

Now, only one remains open.

Jay Holthus: “We call this the main process building.”

Jay Holthus is the plant manager for Pacific Ethanol in Boardman, west of Pendleton.

His plant looks like any oil refinery, except with extra agriculture silos – and lots of corn kernels lying around.

Jay Holthus: “From an ag operation, to a processing operation. The first step is the slurry tank. And that’s where granddad made his mash and had it over the fire.”

The plant’s corporate owner is in bankruptcy – and four of its five power plants across the Western U.S. are idled.

The Boardman facility is still operating; but could be shut down soon.

Holthus says the company has a $27 million matching federal grant to build a newer, better ethanol power plant next door.

 Ethanol Plant
 Pacific Ethanol in Boardman

The newer, better fuel is not a food source like corn – but agricultural waste, grass, or trees. It’s called cellulosic ethanol.

Jay Holthus: “I think we need to have renewable fuel resources. Is it ethanol? Maybe. Is it corn? Probably not. I think we had to learn how to make ethanol, then cellulosic ethanol, then who knows? I think our children may look and say, wow, how barbaric was that.”

With cellulosic ethanol on the rise, the growth market for biomass right now is electricity production.

Government tax credits and energy targets have sent power companies scrambling to build new plants.

Currently, Oregon has just a handful of biomass facilities that generate about 40 megawatts of power. That’s a sliver of the state’s energy use.

Overall, the government predicts biomass will generate almost 5 percent of the country’s power by 2030.

But biomass-produced electricity still costs about 3 times as much as conventional energy sources — more than 5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Phil Chang wonders why so much investment goes into turning biomass into gas or electricity instead of heat.

Phil Chang: “Part of the problem is that wood heating seems old school to people. Electricity and liquid transportation fuels get all the attention. I think it’s sexier. But again, it’s so ironic. If you look at the average American home, the largest single energy demand in that home is for heat.”

In the pie chart of U.S. energy use, 1/3 is electricity, 1/3 is auto fuel, and 1/3 is heating.

Half of Oregon’s homes are heated by electricity, which in turn is produced by coal or natural gas.

Biomass heat plants are already a proven technology, in saw-mills, industrial plants, and schools.

And unlike solar and wind power, biomass is a resource that’s always there.

But, like any energy technology, for biomass to hit the big time, it needs government support.

And that’s where environmental concerns may put up a roadblock.

The biggest climate change bill in U.S. history is working its way through Congress right now.

Scientists argue that planting trees can help combat climate change.

But it doesn’t label trees on national forests as renewable energy.

 Greg Walden

Greg Walden to former-Vice President Al Gore: Why exclude biomass from major energy bill? Watch on YouTube.

Last month, in a hearing with former Vice President Al Gore, Republican Congressman Greg Walden, from Hood River, held up a hardened puck made of wood.

Rep Greg Walden: “When that material comes out, why in the devil do we say it’s not renewable and can’t be turned into pucks like this to help reduce carbon from coal. This could be put into a coal plant in my district, if they could get enough of this made. Why do we preclude it in this bill?”

And environmentalists fear that if woody biomass is officially labeled “renewable,” timber companies will over-log national forests.

Walden says he continues to work with Democrats to make woody biomass from federal forests part of the country’s renewable energy goals.

That’s why advocates say Oregon should become ground zero for biomass energy production.

They say once you start transporting biomass by truck, or train, or ship, you lose the benefits of biomass because
The closer the power plants can be to the forests, the better off you are.