Biomass energy production in the Interior West


In November I wrote a post exploring reasons many western political elites are gung ho for biomass energy production. This follow-up post explores the push for biomass energy projects where it is strongest – in the Interior West - and profiles developments in SE Oregon’s Klamath County. 

A wood chip truck is unloaded at a biomass energy production facility

The strength of the push for biomass energy production in the Interior West has a lot to do with economic realities within the wood products industry. Regional demand for wood products is not sufficient to sustain current capacity. That’s nothing new. But in the expanding global timber market, the Interior West’s high production and transportation costs mean the region’s mills can’t compete with firms positioned to take advantage of sea shipping or located closer to markets. Given those realities, big timber must either find new sources of revenue or new subsidies or they will pack up and relocate to the South, the West Coast or overseas where they can compete more successfully.

The rural western political class has gotten the message from big timber: either we get guaranteed supplies and new subsidies or we’re out of business in your area.  This scares the bejesus out of rural politicians who fear losing the industry’s political contributions as well as jobs and property taxes.  Biomass is seen by these elites as the last best hope for maintaining current wood products capacity.

Biomass boosters face a big obstacle, however. Biomass energy production is not competitive.  And while the Obama Administration is making investments in lowering the cost of producing electricity from biomass, those investments may or may not produce the desired cost savings. Even if they are successful, efforts to reduce the cost of biomass energy production will not come on line for some time. That has not deterred biomass boosters, however. They continue to push for subsidies to remove biomass from national forests in the name of fire risk reduction and they are offering all kinds of incentives to firms who may be willing to build a biomass plant in their town or county.  Biomass boosters appear to believe that if they build it the subsidies will come.  

Biomass promoters like to proselytize; they often publicly tout the benefits of biomass energy production. Few, however, talk about the indirect costs associated with biomass energy production. As it turns out those costs can be substantial.  We can get a better idea of biomass energy production’s costs by examining a case study. 

Klamath County opts for biomass:

Southeast Oregon’s Klamath County and its largest town - the City of Klamath Falls - have aggressively sought biomass energy production.  Klamath County is a prime location: not only does it have forests nearby and a current wood products waste stream but there is also a major electric transmission corridor passing through the county.

Northwest Energy Systems Company based in Kirkland Washington (NESCO) has decided to build biomass energy plants in Klamath Falls and Warm Springs Oregon. In Klamath County NESCO has formed a subsidiary - Klamath Falls Bioenergy – and is pursuing an aggressive time-line for bringing their plant on line. The Oregon Department of Energy issued a “project order” detailing what must be done to comply with applicable regulations and a construction site near the Klamath Falls city limit has been chosen.  Best of all for the company, the City of Klamath Falls has agreed to sell the plant 600,000 gallons of potable water per day.

The City's water supply comes from groundwater wells. And while groundwater is dropping precipitously in some parts of the County, water for the biomass plant would only increase the City’s groundwater extraction by about one percent over current pumping rates.  Nevertheless, competition for water has been fierce in the upper Klamath River Basin and local residents have raised concerns about how the planned biomass plant might affect water supplies.

The largest costs of the new plant, however, would likely be to air quality and the health of city and county residents. This year Klamath Falls was given an “F” air quality grade by the American Lung Association; for the second straight year the city’s air quality was rated worst in Oregon.  Particulate pollution – the kind produced by biomass plants and wood stoves – was cited as the main reason for the flunking grade.  As in most parts of the Interior West, Klamath Falls experiences air inversions which trap bad air near ground level leading to unhealthy conditions. 

wilfire smoke inversion 
A typical air inversion traps smoke near the ground in Northern California

Klamath Falls residents are already subject to regular “no burn” days – including restrictions on wood burning heat stoves. These restrictions could become more frequent if the proposed biomass plant is built. Lower income folks are more likely to heat with wood, more likely not to have an alternative to wood heat and therefore more likely to face restrictions when biomass plants are built near their homes. 

Many citizens recognize that biomass boosters present only the benefits of biomass energy production and downplay the costs. Rural westerners have learned that the economic development schemes of rural elites often involve unacknowledged costs which are not born equally by all community members. In Klamath Falls and elsewhere in the Interior West, biomass energy development has become an environmental justice as well as a human health and water supply issue.

Northwest Energy Systems Company has obtained an air quality permit for the planned Klamath County biomass plant from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. That was only possible because the site for the plant is just outside the boundary of an EPA/DEQ delineated non-attainment zone for fine and course particulate matter – two of the pollutants the proposed biomass plant will emit. Since the zone was established, extensive residential housing has been developed outside the boundary. Local residents concerned about the plant want those boundaries expanded. The response from Oregon DEQ is typically bureaucratic: 


The boundaries of the air quality management areas were established in conjunction with the EPA taking into consideration local meteorology, topography, population, and residential, commercial, and industrial activities.


While construction has yet to begin, NESCO wants to have the Klamath Falls plant operational by late 2013. It is not known whether concerned Klamath County citizens have taken their case to the EPA or whether they will get a hearing in that venue.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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