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Unique local attributes have prompted community leaders to consider paying for a feasibility study

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Unique local attributes have prompted community leaders to consider paying for a feasibility study.

Is the Crook County area ripe for a biomass facility?

Local leaders think so and are hoping to validate that belief with new research soon, depending on how much funding they can secure to test the waters. Leading the charge is the city of Prineville, whose leaders have expressed a desire to boost renewable energy generation in the years ahead. They hope to partner with Crook County leaders as they explore local biomass potential.

"The city and the county believe that the conditions in our area are strong for the potential for a biomass project to create electricity," said City Manager Steve Forrester. "We have large (power) users, we have a natural resource in the Ochoco National Forest that needs treatment as it relates to overall forest health. We have the need to remove junipers for watershed quality. We have a high wildfire risk because of the overgrowth fuel load on the forest ... We have a railroad that could participate in supplementing fuel for such a process from other areas regionally. When we put all those attributes in the pot, we are a great location for that potential."

Forrester added that Crook County is a community that would support biomass activity, and it is home to the Ochoco Forest Collaborative, which is looking for ways to improve forest management, including the harvest of timber.

Though community leaders have a good handle on the attributes that make biomass a viable alternative, there are some other issues they would need to figure out. For example, how much more power should the region try to generate?

"The real difficulty is having economies of scale to where the size of that (biomass) plant would be meaningful," Forrester said. "Combine that with the fact that we have some capacity restraints on the big feed lines on (Bonneville Power Administration) and PacifiCorp that feed what we call the Central Oregon bubble."

He likened the large power lines to a freeway, noting that a lot of the power on that freeway is committed to California, not Central Oregon, even though it is on the same pathway. He concludes that in order to increase the power coming into Central Oregon, they will either need a bigger freeway, figuratively speaking, or turn to local generation.

"If we were to generate 5% or 10% of the power requirement in Central Oregon, that is incremental growth in our capacity," Forrester said.

He went on to note that Crook County is already home to some large renewable energy sources, primarily in the form of solar power plants.

"They are great, and they generate a tremendous amount of power, but as we all know, the sun doesn't shine all the time," he said. "So, baseload power is the key. Baseload power is power that can generate 24/7/365. That can also be used to bridge the gap between the sun shining in the daytime hours and the sun going down and having a baseload power solution."

What local leaders hope to determine is if they can produce biomass-generated power in a way that helps provide the baseload power but is competitive with other less expensive sources.

"We know that solar is very inexpensive on a per-kilowatt basis. We know that natural gas is very inexpensive," Forrester said, "and the extraction of material — whether it is on the forest, juniper removal or woody biomass out of landfills (construction residuals) — there is a cost associated."

Costs come in the form of shipping freight and paying people to work in the forest.

"It is difficult to generate power at a cost-effective rate to support the infrastructure and activity to fuel it," Forrester added.

However, local leaders believe they can find positive attributes that would incentivize people to consider biomass-generated power over less expensive alternatives like wind and solar.

"We think that if we can tie a biomass facility back to forest health and we can utilize other waste streams such as landfill-type wastes and subsidize juniper removal ... we may be able to potentially get to a cost of power to produce a rate that is manageable. That would incentivize companies that are sensitive to doing the right things for the environment to participate in purchasing of power."

Ultimately, local leaders would like to see Prineville become a pilot project for the entirety of rural America, and particularly the Pacific Northwest. Forrester said they believe such a project could be "a very effective tool in providing a value stream from treating forestlands on a perpetual basis where we are minimizing wildfire risk." He added that it could reduce the cost of fighting wildfires and improve forest health, water quality and air quality.

To find out if a biomass project would work as hoped in Crook County — improving forest health and the environment, providing a new and renewable power source, and supplying local family-wage jobs — local leaders are considering a feasibility study.

But in order to go down that path, they will need $400,000 — and taxpayer money is not an option, Forrester said.

"We are doing our best to have a feasibility study grant-funded," he said. "We have a commitment through Energy Trust of Oregon for some funding, and we need more than that, so we are working with Oregon Department of Forestry, USDA and some private participants to try to launch a large-scale feasibility study."

The city is interested in facilitating the study, Forrester said, but city leaders are hoping to work with the county as they go down that path. Crook County Court members joined the Prineville City Council in a joint workshop last week to discuss biomass generation options and a potential feasibility study.

"We all have to be on the same page with this," Forrester stressed.

Though biomass production has some new momentum, where meetings have taken place and work is under way to raise funds for a feasibility study, people should not expect to see a biomass facility right away. The process is expected to take some time, and whether anything will come of it is still unknown.

"I would characterize this as step one of a 10,000-step journey," Forrester said. "This is going to be very difficult, very complex."

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