Boardman, Oregon Coal Plant Mulls Biomass

- by George Plaven, April 6, 2015, EO Media Group

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"451","attributes":{"alt":"boardman coal plant in oregon","class":"media-image","height":"317","style":"width: 333px; height: 220px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Wweek.com","width":"480"}}]]As a potential source of renewable energy, giant cane could be the answer to saving Portland General Electric’s coal-fired power plant in Boardman long after the facility quits using coal by 2020.

On the other hand, as an invasive species, giant cane could spread wild across the Columbia Basin, choking out native vegetation and undoing years of work by local tribes to restore river habitat.

A proposed bill in Salem attempts to strike a balance between the competing environmental interests. House Bill 2183 would require farmers who grow giant cane for biomass or other commercial uses to post a $1 million surety bond with the Oregon Invasive Species Council. The money would pay for costly eradication efforts, should the crop escape from the field.

Not surprisingly, PGE is opposed to the measure while continuing research into alternative fuels that could be used to power the Boardman Coal Plant. In 2010, the state’s largest utility decided to phase out coal at Boardman instead of paying for hundreds of millions of dollars in new emissions controls. The plant is relatively young — it opened in 1977 — and employs 122 people.

One possible biomass fuel is giant cane, formally known as Arundo donax, which PGE has spent several years growing in small test plots.

HB2183 not only calls for a $1 million bond for growing giant cane in 400 acres or less, but an additional $25,000 for every acre above 400 acres. PGE has estimated it would take 8,000 tons of biomass every day to keep the Boardman Coal Plant humming, and scientists initially anticipated they could grow 25 tons per acre of Arundo donax locally.

At that rate, it would take 320 acres of giant cane just to power the plant for a single day. Brendan McCarthy, government affairs specialist for PGE, said there are still too many unknowns about whether HB2183 would make Arundo donax unfeasible on a large scale.

McCarthy did say the bill is “unnecessary,” especially considering the Oregon Department of Agriculture already has rules in place for growing giant cane — which includes a $1 million bond, along with numerous stipulations on where and how to grow.

“Arundo donax is invasive in other parts of the country,” McCarthy said. “The concerns are valid, and we took those into consideration for the stringent growing conditions we have.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation also opposes HB2183, but for a very different reason. The tribes would rather ban the cane in Oregon, which they say is as alarming a noxious weed as it is promising as a biofuel.

In a letter sent March 2 to the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Gary Burke, chairman of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, said HB2183 would essentially give the legislature’s approval to grow a highly invasive species with minimal controls to prevent escape.

“The CTUIR supports the use of biofuels, but does not support the introduction and use of invasive, noxious weeds as biofuel,” Burke said.

Arundo donax is a perennial bamboo-like cane native to eastern and southern Asia, as well as the Mediterranean Basin, parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. At maturity, the plants can grow more than 20 feet tall and form in dense stands around water.

An analysis done by the tribes in 2012 suggests the cane’s rhizomes, or reproductive stems, could be easily spread by natural factors such as flooding and high winds, as well as by humans and animals. If the plants took hold in a riparian area, they would out-compete native species that otherwise provide habitat for cultural First Foods, including salmon, deer and elk.

The same analysis also shows growing the cane on the farm would take roughly the same amount of irrigation as alfalfa, which the tribes say is bound to displace some food crops or drive increased demand for Columbia River water.

“The CTUIR, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, as well as various federal and state partners, have spent millions of dollars to restore habitat and flows in the basins, efforts that are threatened by introduction of a crop that has a potential to escape and destroy the ecosystems we’ve sought to protect,” Burke said.

Stopping giant cane after it has escaped is an expensive proposition, since weed control officers can’t use the same treatments and herbicides so close to waterways. That’s why ODA calls for a surety bond in its rules, and continues monitoring for infestations three years after a grower’s permit has expired.

Morrow County gave PGE permission to grow up to 300 acres of giant cane for its trials in 2011. Helmuth Rogg, director of plant protections and conservation program areas for ODA, said the agency will re-evaluate their rules should the utility decide to grow on a larger, commercial-size scale.

“We worked on this for quite some time with the Invasive Weed Council,” Rogg said. “We have the county weed folks checking constantly in areas downstream to see if there’s Arundo donax that has escaped one way or another.”

Other than at Boardman and a small feral population in southwest Oregon, Rogg said the cane is not grown anywhere else in the state.

Giant cane is far from the only biofuel considered at Boardman. PGE is also testing 17-18 other materials, including wheat straw, wood chips and sawdust. Before the material can be fed into the plant, it must go through a process known as torrefaction, where it is burned in the absence of oxygen to create something similar to a charcoal briquette.

A test burning of biomass at the plant is scheduled for sometime later this spring.