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New Biomass Projects 'Pencil Out' Only On A Small Scale

Doug Nadvornick

When it comes to alternative energy, many see the Northwest as the Saudi Arabia of woody biomass. The potential is huge. Trees are everywhere here. But experience has shown that wood–fired power plants tend to "pencil out," [estimate in approximate figures whether a proposed investment is expected to be profitable,] only on a small scale. That's a lesson many rural communities are learning as they explore whether to build their own plants. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick found, for now anyway, that woody biomass projects rely heavily on government grants.


Just a few miles outside of Priest River, Idaho, Liz Johnson–Gebhardt and I are looking at a recently logged hillside. She lives not far from here. Right next to us is a huge pile of wood.

Johnson–Gebhardt: "You would call it logging debris or slash is what we normally call it. But it's the branches, the limbs."

Nadvornick: "And what would typically be done with this?"

Johnson–Gebhardt: "Normally they would probably pile it right in the woods and burn it in the fall, during what they call slash burning season. And the smoke would go up in the air."

Nadvornick: "This would make a hell of a lot of smoke, wouldn't it?"

Johnson–Gebhardt: "Oh yeah. This pile, if they just lit it, would probably burn for maybe 8 to 10 months. Yeah. Because it starts to fall in on itself and almost turn into an internal volcano."

It's a tremendous amount of energy just burning away. Now, if you're Liz Johnson–Gebhardt, you're thinking, what a waste. She directs the Priest Community Forest Connection, an organization of timber professionals and economic developers. For the last year, they've been looking at building an incinerator that would turn this kind of debris into electricity. At a time when alternative energy is all the rage, it's a no brainer, right?

Johnson–Gebhardt: "It's a tough deal to finance though."

Nadvornick: "So you've explored it. What are some of the obstacles you've run into."

Johnson–Gebhardt: "Basically it's the financing, because if it's a big plant, the banks want to see that you're going to have a 20–year supply."

A 20&ndash year supply of wood to feed the plant. But in a region full of trees, she can't find that 20–year supply. A recent Forest Service survey found that the national forests wouldn't be able to provide wood–fired plants with enough raw material.

So Johnson–Gebhardt says a wood–burning plant is not in Priest River's immediate future.

Johnson–Gebhardt: "Probably without some kind of subsidy it's going to be really difficult."

Other rural Northwest communities have found subsidies, for small projects anyway. Enterprise, Oregon, for example, recently won a $275,000 federal stimulus grant to help build a small wood–burning power plant. Nils Christoffersen directs Wallowa Resources, one of the groups working on the project.

Christoffersen: "All of the electricity and heat that is produced will be used by small wood product or agricultural businesses that are co–located with the heat and power plant. So we're not trying to sell on the grid, regionally or nationally. We're trying to use it all here."

Christoffersen says the subsidy helps the project make economic sense. In Idaho, several school districts have used money from the Forest Service to install wood–fired heating systems in older buildings.

O'Laughlin says, without those subsidies, many projects don't add up. He's a University of Idaho forestry professor. He did an economic analysis for a French–American enterprise that plans to build a large wood–fired plant near the town of Shelton, in western Washington. He says there is a big enough supply of local wood there. But he says, east of the Cascades, the economics don't work right now. The problem he says, is the cost of trucking it long distances is too high.

O'Laughlin: "Anything beyond 50 miles just doesn't make sense."

There is one big wood burning plant is eastern Washington. It struggles to get enough wood. The Spokane utility Avista built it in Kettle Falls 25 years ago.

O'Laughlin: "But if that was a good idea, Avista would have put another wood–fueled generation station somewhere else in the Inland West and they have not done that."

To bridge the transportation gap, biomass users have asked the Forest Service to provide more waste wood closer to communities. The agency is trying to oblige, but it can only do so much.

Agency planner Barry Wynsma drives me to a forested area near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. He shows me where trees have been thinned to reduce the wildfire danger.

Wynsma: "We can target acres and acres of these smaller–diameter stands like this. We pulled out the understory, all those fuels, all those BTUs. They go up in flames."

Those are flames that could power an electric plant, instead of scorching a forest. Wynsma says the Forest Service is trying to get rid of as much of that waste wood as it can.

Wynsma: "Eventually, the ultimate goal is to use everything that's available out there so we're not left with having any slash out there, excess slash to dispose of."

But Wynsma concedes that goal is a long way off, given the agency's budget constraints.

Back at the slash pile, or fire pit, in Priest River, Liz Johnson–Gebhardt says that's discouraging news for people like her who want to do more with waste wood in their communities. The idea of a big biomass power plant may not be realistic, for now anyway. But she can dream small. Some of the sawmills in north Idaho have talked about adding electrical generation to their facilities. That gives her some hope.

Johnson–Gebhardt: "I think it is viable. Maybe not right now, especially with the financial situation of the world, especially for our area. But I work with some pretty stubborn people and I don't think any of us are going to let go."

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Priest River, Idaho.

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