Oregon’s energy plan offers a glimmer of hope for biomass energy

Advocates hope the timber-rich state’s decision to ditch coal could help revive the struggling industry.

 

The wood-based biomass industry has fallen on hard times. Once a promising avenue for timber-dominated regions to diversify their economies, the industry is struggling to compete with plummeting natural gas prices or the more generous subsidies extended to other forms of renewable energy. Biomass facilities – which convert wood and other organic materials into electricity, heat or both – have shuttered across the nation.

Western states are no exception. Biomass-generated electricity costs nearly twice as much as power from natural gas and the California Biomass Energy Alliance reports that 40 percent of the state’s biomass facilities are now idle. Oregon – another state with tremendous biomass potential thanks to its timber industry – has also seen projects come to a halt. But Oregon’s recently released energy plan, which phases out coal power by 2030 and emphasizes renewable energy, could provide an opportunity for biomass to reassert itself.

Just a few years ago, there were about a dozen industrial-scale projects in the works in Oregon; most of them are on hold. At least six of the state’s 17 already existing facilities that use biomass to produce electricity and heat are idle, and others may go offline if they can’t reach new contracts with utilities. “I’ve seen, over the last five years, a real decline in project development,” says Marcus Kauffman, a biomass resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry and co-chair of the Oregon Forest Biomass Working Group. “All of (those projects) have completely dried up.” 

Oregon's increased emphasis on renewable energy - along with its timber resources and infrastructure - could mean a boost for the state's biomass industry.

But a seismic shift in Oregon’s energy policy may reverse the fortunes of biomass. Earlier this month, Gov. Kate Brown signed “The Clean Energy and Coal Transition Plan,” which calls for a departure from coal-generated power by 2030 and for 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2040.

In addition to boosting the state’s renewable energy standards for utilities, the landmark plan also makes biomass eligible to immediately count towards the state’s renewable energy compliance goals. Under the state’s earlier renewable energy plan, passed in 2007, biomass credits couldn’t be used to meet renewable energy obligations until 2026. The new act also added renewably sourced thermal energy to the state’s targets. Since most biomass facilities produce both heat and electricity, this modification allows them to earn more renewable energy credits than before. These changes increase the ability of biomass facilities to compete with other renewables as utilities look for cheap non-fossil fuel energy production. 

But challenges remain. Until now, biomass has not fared as well as other forms of alternative energy, and cost-competitiveness remains an issue.

“Biomass hasn’t seen the same long-term, consistent incentives (as wind or solar power),” says Dylan Kruse, a policy director with Sustainable Northwest and another co-manager of the Oregon Forest Biomass Working Group. Although robust financial incentives for biomass are still largely absent and wind and solar enjoy superior federal subsidies, he says Oregon’s policy changes could open a door for biomass.

If biomass proponents can find a way to overcome financial barriers, advocates argue that it offers a number of benefits that other renewable energy sources can’t match.

First, with so many idle facilities, the infrastructure to support biomass already exists. Second, and perhaps most importantly, proponents say biomass offers a kind of waste recycling.

“It’s really a waste disposal issue: We’ve got a bunch of leftover material, what do we do with it?” says Kruse. In the West, biomass is often intertwined with the existing wood products industry rather than as a standalone form of electricity generation. Oregon, for instance, has just one biomass facility that solely produces power. The rest are “co-generation” units built alongside sawmills and other timber facilities that produce electricity while also generating heat used on site.

That resourcefulness, advocates say, not only provides economic opportunities, but can also be used to address forest and land management issues by harvesting woody debris to reduce wildfire susceptibility.

“To me, that’s a really nice marriage that provides benefits to rural communities,” says Kauffman.

Some environmental organizations have questioned the carbon-neutrality of biomass, claiming that some applications of the technology – such as the combustion of wood pellets produced from whole trees – actually produce more emissions than coal. But proponents say circumstances are different in the West, where facilities can rely on organic waste material that, according to Kruse, “was either going to decompose or be burned on site in slash piles.” Since the waste will produce carbon emissions either way, he says society might as well derive value from it while offsetting potential fossil fuel use.

Beyond the carbon footprint associated with biomass, some have also questioned the benefits of proposed biomass projects. Communities such as Lakeview, a small town in southern Oregon, have voiced concerns with air pollution related to local biomass projects. Others harbor concerns about the effects of gathering biomass material from widespread undergrowth clearing, which can increase erosion and alter natural ecosystem processes.

Despite the uncertainty, Oregon’s biomass advocates hope the state’s industry can become a good example for other states to follow.

“We can learn what scale of incentives make sense, (and) what scale of policies make sense,” says Kruse.