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Fuel for the Fires, Inside and Out 

A look at biomass as an alternative fuel source

John Rowell, with the Malheur Lumber Company, says burning wood pellets cause less pollution while creating more heat. Photo by Brian Jennings.

John Rowell, with the Malheur Lumber Company, says burning wood pellets cause less pollution while creating more heat. Photo by Brian Jennings.

Not long ago, the Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day was consuming over 32,000 gallons of costly heating oil each year. Off the beaten path 150 miles east of Bend, the rural community didn't have the option to use cheaper sources of fuel such as natural gas. That is, until recently.  

In a super-heated building adjacent to the hospital, Steve Hill stands next to a large boiler that's burning the wood pellets that now heat the 25-bed facility—including heating water. As director of facilities for the 50,000-square foot hospital, Hill says the hospital is seeing huge cost savings by heating the facility using pellets produced from debris in the nearby Malheur National Forest. 

Seventy miles to the south, the Harney County Hospital in Burns had earlier converted to a biomass system for heating. The team at Blue Mountain took note and moved to implement their own biomass system. The cost savings have been far more than expected.  

“We crunched the numbers and figured there would be about a $50,000 a year savings, and right now we’re looking at about $150,000 savings a year,” says Hill. He says the pellet option is not only more efficient than burning fuel oil, but the maintenance costs are cheaper. “We get only about five gallons of fine ash every two months. There is very low ash content to the pellets and lower carbon emissions," he explains. “For anybody who is burning number two oil, it’s a no-brainer. Go biomass.” 

Biomass heating options are gaining steam across rural Oregon, with its cold winters and lack of natural gas supply lines—yet there are abundant fuels available in the nearby woods. The John Day and Prairie City School Districts are both using pellets to heat their facilities. The John Day airport and the National Guard building have also converted their heating systems. In the case of Blue Mountain Hospital, it also has the benefit of proximity to the sawmill that specializes in manufacturing wood pellets.   

Part of the Ochoco Lumber Company, the Malheur Lumber Company produces about 1,500 tons of heating pellets and bricks each month. It also produces pellets used as kitty litter, and biodegradable pellets and wood shavings used for animal bedding. Every shred and fiber of wood that comes into the Malheur Lumber Company is utilized. 

“Our region has a lot of wood,” pellet plant supervisor John Rowell says. “All of our material that comes here for processing—whether it's saw logs, chips, whatever we make—it all eventually gets used.” The company even uses wood debris to heat its own system of dry kilns for lumber production as well as drying wood product material for the commercial production of its pellets. 

Rowell also says burning wood pellets significantly reduces pollution. "There are 50 percent less particulates than burning normal cord wood and the heat produced is also greater." 

Another Benefit: Preventing Wildfires

There is another major benefit of using the wood debris: Improving the health of the forests. “We’re hoping to help eliminate large fires by bringing a certain amount of the high volume of flammable fuel material found in the woods back to the plant in a managed way so our forests will get healthier and safer,” Rowell says.  

Malheur Lumber Company works closely with the US Forest Service in a stewardship program in the Malheur and Wallowa Whitman National Forests. The Forest Service identifies what wood needs to be taken out to improve and sustain the health of the forest. “We have so many fuels in the forest that are creating a problem with severe wildfires,” Rowell explains. “That’s the biggest key and the whole objective of this process.” 

Rowell says maintaining the forests is expensive and suggests tax dollars might b considered to thin and clean the forests before they result in major fires—such as the Canyon Creek fire in August 2015, one of the most devastating fire in Oregon history. Along with slim fire-fighting resources, heavy debris buildup was thought to be a cause of the fire.  

Biomass on a Major Scale: Powering Homes & Businesses

Biomass technology for energy production is gaining momentum in Oregon, but it’s still in its infancy here and around the U.S. At Oregon's Department of Energy, it’s getting a lot of attention. Dan Avery, a policy analyst for the ODOE, says biomass is a big field. “There are a lot of different pieces to it such as forest products, bio-gas from waste water treatment or agricultural facilities and other sources,” he says. 

One major project involves Portland General Electric’s coal-fired plant in Boardman. The plant will phase out its use of coal by the end of 2020, as part of the nation’s effort to reduce carbon emissions. The Boardman plant supplies approximately 15 percent of PGE’s power. According to Avery, PGE is looking at using agricultural and forest products to replace coal using a technological process called torrefaction. The Company says it will need up to 8,000 tons of biomass to supply the power needed for hundreds of thousands of homes.  

Through the torrefaction process, the resulting fuel burns almost like coal, without the adverse environmental impacts. The Malheur Lumber Company has a hand in helping develop the technology for PGE. 

“If we can get it off the ground, it will allow us to take up a lot of biomass and use it as an alternative to coal burning. If it works, that will be big,” says Malheur Lumber’s Rowell.  

According to PGE’s Steve Corson, the company has been researching biomass options since 2010 and has tested nearly two dozen potential fuel stocks with researchers at Washington State University—with many more in queue. “It is still very much a research project. We’ve made no decisions as to the future of the plant,” he says. “The Boardman plant, according to industry standards, is a relatively young plant. It has a lot of life to it in terms of the equipment. It’s also an extremely valuable asset to the community from the standpoint of jobs and property taxes, so we believe keeping that plant alive has some significant benefits.” 

Part of PGE's effort is testing the torrefaction technology, which can reduce the amount of biomass needed for energy production, making it more economically viable. The company describes it as a roasting process similar to that used in making charcoal, carried out at temperatures of 400-600 degrees Fahrenheit and in the absence of oxygen. The end result is a dried, brittle material that can be burned with minimal changes to the existing Boardman facility, according to PGE. 

Torrefied pellets or briquettes are more energy-dense and at the same time lighter and drier than the biomass from which they are made, making the product easier to transport and to store. 

PGE's tests of their torrified biomass have so far been successful. Next the company hopes to perform a test this November using 100 percent biomass, without the use of any coal. “The test last year confirmed that the fuel will run through the plant with minimal adjustment to existing equipment,” says Corson. 

Corson says PGE is excited about the potential of biomass at its Boardman plant but is still “very much in the research mode as to whether the company can convert to total biomass.” 

Environmental Impacts

Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resource Management Group in Olympia, Washington hesitates to endorse biomass as an answer to future energy needs.  In a paper published by Yale University's Journal of Industrial Ecology, Morris suggests there are better things to do with woody biomass than burning it for heat or electricity.   

He says based on comparisons he's seen it's likely that overall environmental impacts will go up as a result of the switch.  "CO2 is CO2 in terms of climate impacts, so release of CO2 from burning wood has the same impact as the release of CO2 from burning oil or coal.  Whether whole trees or wood wastes from construction/demolition debris or from logging sites, burning wood is not an environmentally friendly source of energy."   

Morris suggests that recycling into reconstituted wood products or papermaking pulp, or landfilling with methane capture and flaring to generate electricity is a better option. He says long term economics may be very different than the short run comparisons that are yielding current savings from burning wood instead of oil.   

Dan Avery at the Oregon Department of Energy is optimistic though. “I think biomass is going to grow considerably. The technology particularly at bio-refineries as they become financially viable will see a lot of growth.” He says more local communities are looking at bio-gas from waste water treatment facilities.  “This is definitely a positive path we’re headed down.” 

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