Biomass concept heats up at SH meeting

Sean C. Morgan

Heat for downtown Sweet Home buildings could come from burning woody biomass, the byproduct of harvesting trees, cheaper than natural gas, and it could provide jobs to Sweet Home, which sits in the middle of the resource.

“Is there a way we can use this biomass as a tool to provide a degree of economic stimulation to the town of Sweet Home?” asked Marcus Kauffman, a consultant with East Fork Consulting of Eugene at a meeting hosted Oct. 17 by the Sweet Home Ranger District.

At the meeting, consultants, business leaders and government officials agreed that the concept was interesting and began discussing ways to fund a feasibility study that could cost up to $100,000.

David Smith, a wood technologist with the Forestry College at Oregon State University, outlined the concept. Smith is an expert in manufacturing and wood products.

The woody biomass, often burned as slash, is a low-value resource that doesn’t pencil out because of transport costs, but Smith would like to find a way to turn it into a product to support the Sweet Home community.

“We have to get every ounce we can out of the forest resource,” Smith said. Biomass is an under-utilized resource. Most commonly, it has been used as hog fuel for heat and power in the wood products manufacturing industry.

There has been a lot of effort building 20- and 30-megawatt power plants to burn biomass it, but they haven’t worked well because of the high cost of transportation, Smith said.

Forest products historically has been a rural industry, Smith said.

“What we want to do is get back to that idea. The resources can be used to the local benefit. We can create jobs – acquire the resources and create jobs by adding value to these resources.”

That keeps the dollars local and moving through the community, Smith said.

OSU isn’t in a position to make this happen, but it can encourage, provide information and facilitate a public-private partnership “to use as a tool to help this community prosper,” Smith said. “The concept we have in mind is to build a power plant or energy center to be located perhaps on the old Willamette Industries site.”

It would have a small footprint and turn woody biomass into heat through gasification or combustion, Smith said. It would heat fluid distributed through underground pipes to all of the major users in the downtown area, both public and private.

“This energy, in the form of a hot fluid, would stub up into each one of these buildings and flow just like a central heating system does now,” Smith said. Heating appliances would operate with the controls used today.

If there is ever an issue, the buildings could fall back to the heating systems already in place, Smith said.

The question always comes up about whether it would also generate power, Smith said. He is lukewarm about whether that idea is practical.

As a thermal energy center, it could become a thermal host for new process industries providing low-cost heat, Smith said. “So we would have the ability to attract additional development in town.”

“It would be clean,” Smith said. “It would not maintain much of an inventory.”

The biomass supply would be processed and stored at businesses just outside of the city, such as T2 and Western Recovery, which are both located west of Sweet Home off Highway 20.

They would become biomass suppliers for the plant, Smith said. They would provide an engineered fuel chip, not hog fuel, extracted from the core wood and uniformly sized and clean. It is one of several products they can make at their facilities, and they can continue to do what they do now.

The engineered wood chips would need to cost between $80 and $100 per ton to be cheaper than natural gas per BTU, Smith said.

The concept of central district heating isn’t new, Smith said. New York City has steam district heating, and Eugene was built on a similar concept.

Biomass central heating systems are already located in Vancouver, BC.; St. Paul, Minn.; Europe; and Seattle, Marcus said. “We’re not looking to run a technological experiment here.”

Sisters High School dedicated a new biomass heat installation on Oct. 17. The $300,000 project, one of nine biomass heat projects constructed around the state this year, is expected to save the district between $35,000 and $65,000 per year in fuel costs.

“We’ve got over 300 closed down brownfield sites in this state,” Smith said. “We’re surrounded by the resource. We just need to find a way to use it.”

“We think this is something that’s repeatable hundreds of times around the state once we figure out how to do it. We think it makes sense penciling it out on the back of a napkin.”

But that’s not enough. A feasibility study would help evaluate the idea and answer many more questions, including whether it might pencil out.

A study would look over the lifetime of the plant, 20 years, and compare cost projections for natural gas and biomass, Marcus said. “This is one of those things they’d put into the model.”

The study would need to outline a number of scenarios from the worst to the best cases, he said.

The feasibility study would probably cost up to $100,000, Smith said. A U.S. Department of Energy Grant would fund 65 percent of it with a 35-percent cash match.

Cascade Timber Consulting President Dave Furtwangler committed CTC to providing $5,000 toward the study, saying his company sees some obvious benefit here.

Sweet Home Economic Development Director Brian Hoffman agreed to serve as the local information hub for the project as members of the meeting begin exploring the idea.