The culture of Central Oregon is a place-based one. The region is known for its bright skies beyond the gray Willamette Valley, high snowy peaks perfect for winter recreation, pumpkin colored pine trees that provide a scenic backdrop and playground, and of course, its craft brewing built on a rich watershed. Is it possible this place can also be known for its home-grown biomass energy?
This was the topic of discussion during the January forum hosted by the City Club of Central Oregon. Panelists Dylan Kruse (Policy Director of Sustainable Northwest) and Andrew Haden (President of Wisewood Energy) provided their perspectives on the opportunity that biomass presents for the Central Oregon region, and why anyone should care about it.
Bend may be dominated by the recreation, tourist, and service industries today, but it wasn't long ago that ranching and forestry were major drivers in the local economy. The future may be a combination of these activities, with sustainable natural resource management serving a greater economic role. Community-scale biomass systems that provide space heating using the byproduct of local forest restoration activities (for example, slash material produced from fuels reduction treatments that aim to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire) could be one part of that diversified economy.
Modern biomass heating systems often get lumped into the broad category of "biomass energy". On its face this may seem appropriate, but it can be a source of confusion for the uninitiated because biomass energy means many different things. The term includes various types of technologies, feedstocks, and processes, each of which come with a different set of implications and potential impacts. For example, a standalone 20MW biomass power plant that is displacing natural gas for electricity looks very different than a 2,000,000 Btu/hr biomass boiler system that is displacing oil for heating.
The topic of the City Club forum was the latter - community-scaled heating systems. These systems require very little fuel relative to other project scales (e.g., 500-5,000 tons per year versus 150-300,000 tons per year for a power plant) and compared to the available fuel in the region (Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council recently commissioned a study that determined almost 180,000 tons of biomass is currently economically available every year in the tri-county area). Modern biomass heating systems are very clean, with dynamic system controls that ensure complete, efficient combustion to minimize emissions - a far cry from woody biomass being piled and burned in the forest, which is the common alternative fate for residual biomass in the area. And, these systems can both stabilize energy costs and reduce them, especially when compared to fuel oil or propane.
Biomass heating is not the right choice for every situation. However, in many cases it represents a significant benefit for not only the project owner, but the local community and economy. Wisewood Energy sees many such opportunities in Central Oregon, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.
Photo by Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project.