Photo by Ellen Miller

Monday, January 3, 2011

A year of burning issues for biomass energy

Published: Sunday, January 02, 2011, 7:33 PM
A key project is off the ground in Lakeview, but tax incentives are imperiled and the EPA is about to close the damper on turning woody debris into energy 

These days it seems that no political speech in Oregon is complete without an ode to biomass energy. 

Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, virtually every elected official sees in biomass three things Oregon badly needs: More renewable energy, more rural jobs and healthier, less fireprone forests. 

It is a promising and appealing vision: A network of biomass plants loosely chained to the surviving sawmills across Southern and Eastern Oregon, putting people to work clearing brushy forests and turning wood waste and logging debris into renewable energy. 

But it's still a long, long way from here to there. And how close this state ever gets to a thriving biomass industry may well be determined by two key decisions early next year, one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the other by the Oregon Legislature. 

The EPA is poised to implement a rule intended to regulate sources of greenhouse gas pollution. As written, this "Tailoring Rule" would hit the biomass industry with the same tough emission standards applied to coal- and oil-fired energy plants. Members of Congress, including Oregon's Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden, have tried to persuade the EPA to amend the Tailoring Rule before it takes effect Sunday. 

If the EPA insists on treating renewable biomass as the equivalent of dirty coal, the federal government will stunt the biomass industry. A study released two weeks ago before Christmas warned that the Tailoring Rule jeopardizes more than 130 renewable energy projects, between 11,000 and 26,000 green jobs and $18 billion in capital investment across the country. 

The EPA should amend the Tailoring Rule, which threatens the long-term viability of biomass energy, and in turn makes it less likely that Oregon and the rest of the country can meet their renewable energy goals over time. If it doesn't, Congress should intervene and require the agency to distinguish between burning wood and fossil fuels. 

The second critical decision for biomass in Oregon will come when the Legislature debates the renewal of the Business Energy Tax Credit program. Runaway costs and unnecessary giveaways to wind developers have discredited the BETC program in Salem. But for biomass and other renewable projects, it's imperative that lawmakers fashion a new and improved BETC that continues to provide targeted tax incentives. 

Lawmakers wavering over the question of renewing the BETC ought to take a field trip to Lakeview, where Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables and the local Collins Pine Co. have begun construction of a 26.8-megawatt biomass-fired plant next to Collins' existing sawmill. 

The $90 million plant wouldn't be under construction now without the promise of about $9 million in BETC credits. It is exactly what all those elected officials envision when they tout biomass -- an economic use for brush from tens of thousands of acres of fire-prone public forests, jobs in an economically desperate part of the state and enough renewable energy to power 18,000 homes and help satisfy Oregon's 2020 goal for renewable energy. 

It is an exciting project, but it's also a reminder of the myriad challenges facing any biomass plant, not least the continued access to fuel. The Lakeview plant will rely on a combination of Collins' logging and sawmill residuals, which in turn depend on the Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit, a collaborative effort to manage a broad swatch of public forests in southeast Oregon. 

Everything has come together in Lakeview: the fuel, the tax incentives, the welcoming community, the enterprising wood products and energy companies. That's one biomass project. Regulators and lawmakers will determine whether others follow. 

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