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Jobs Watch: Burn wood not coal

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Portland General Electric’s proposal to phase out Oregon’s sole coal-burning power plant 20 years ahead of schedule means the state will soon be losing its largest source of pollution from greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. It also means we will lose a reliable workhorse that has helped keep electricity rates relatively low in Oregon. Replacing the Boardman coal plant will not be easy.

The seemingly obvious solution for making up for that lost power would be to build a new power plant fueled by natural gas. Gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and it is extremely reliable and easy to fire up on demand, to back up renewable resources when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

But I don’t like the idea of replacing one imported fossil fuel with another. I don’t trust natural gas prices. They are low because of the recession but they have a long record of volatility. Cranking up another cookie cutter gas plant may be tempting, but it is far from innovative. And it would cut jobs rather than creating them, because coal plants provide more jobs than gas plants.

A more compelling possibility involves Oregon’s most abundant natural resource: wood. Coal plants have been burning increasing amounts of wood in Europe for years, creating a boom in the wood pellet industry. A whopping 76 new wood pellet plants and 113 new wood-powered biomass electricity plants have been announced in North America since 2007. A few pellet plants are being planned for Oregon, but nowhere near as many as are going up in the Southeast, which is feeding wood pellets to Europe at a staggering rate.

Oregon was a pioneer in woody biomass 20 years ago but it has lost ground to European innovators because Europe has moved faster to embrace carbon regulations. A decision to burn biomass at Boardman could change things quickly, creating new demand for a locally produced source of renewable energy.

Woody biomass has thrived in Europe because it is widely considered a carbon-neutral source of electricity. Burning it releases CO2 into the atmosphere but growing the wood to feed the plant removes an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is different from coal, which stores carbon underground until it is dug up and burned. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to natural gas.

With climate change legislation looming, several forward-thinking utilities in North America are moving quickly to switch from coal to wood. First Energy is converting a 312 MW coal plant to biomass in Ohio for a reported cost of $200 million — less than half of what PGE was on the verge of spending on upgrades in order to keep burning coal at Boardman until 2040.

Ontario Power Generation, the Canadian province’s electric utility, is also looking to burn biomass pellets in two of its fossil fuel plants, potentially displacing up to 1.5 million tons of coal annually.

According to PGE's 377-page Integrated Resource Plan, the utility is actively examining the potential for burning biomass at Boardman. But in this document PGE rejects retrofitting Boardman into a biomass plant after all of two paragraphs of analysis.

PGE should reconsider biomass. Woody biomass may cost more than natural gas at current prices, but it is cheaper than wind and solar. And part of the costs of biomass are operation and maintenance, also known as jobs. An ambitious biomass plant at Boardman could create more jobs to Oregon than any other source of energy. It would play into the state’s strengths in sustainable forestry and renewable energy innovation. And the biggest beneficiary would be struggling former timber towns throughout rural Oregon, where unemployment rates are soaring.

I have no doubt that a conversion from coal to biomass would bring technical challenges. But it is being done elsewhere. Why not in Oregon, the largest lumber producer in the nation? We have the raw materials and the expertise. What’s needed is a market. PGE could single-handedly create a huge new market while phasing out the Boardman coal plant and moving closer to complying with state requirements that utilities generate 25% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Admittedly, I am no engineer. So how do I know PGE can switch from coal to wood? Because PGE is already doing that — in Poland. OK, so it’s a different PGE, Polska Grupa Energetyczna, that is building the largest carbon-neutral, wood-fired power plant in Central Europe. But if their PGE can do it, so can ours.

UPDATE, Jan. 21: PGE spokesman Steve Corson says a team of researchers is intensifying its study of biomass at Boardman, looking at not only wood pellets but also a fast-growing exotic weed called arundo donax as well as the process of torrefaction, which converts wood into a type of charcoal before burning it at the plant.

"We've been doing a lot of research, but at this point it's just research," Corson says.

PGE has big questions to answer to turn that research into action. As Corson points out, trucking in woody biomass from pellet plants throughout Oregon rather than shipping coal by rail from Wyoming could add a whole lot of new trucks to state roads. "Is that going to be efficient, cost effective or good for the environment?" he wonders. "There's a lot of homework to be done."

So get to work. If President Obama is right and the leaders of the future economy will be the leaders of the renewable energy economy, PGE needs to get off of coal and into the future.

Ben Jacklet is the managing editor of Oregon Business.

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