City and county teaming up to build new 20-megawatt plant that is expected to bring more than 100 jobs to the community

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The city and county are teaming up to build a new 20-megawatt plant that is expected to bring more than 100 jobs to the community.

For close to a decade, local leaders have pursued biomass options.

Though they experienced some encouraging moments, none of the attempts ever came to fruition. Meanwhile, the debate about forest management and its impact on the escalating frequency of wildfires continues as elected leaders, forest service personnel and timber industry leaders have searched for ways to reduce forest fuel loads.

City and county leaders hope to have finally found a way to positively impact both situations. They have teamed up to build and operate a 20-megawatt biomass power plant in Crook County. A document highlighting the proposed facility notes that the power plant would utilize renewable organic material that would otherwise be left as a wildfire fuel hazard.

"Forest restoration, thinning and fuel hazard reduction activities, which generate biomass for energy use and create more resilient forest stand conditions," the document states. "These actions can reduce the amount and severity of wildfires; damages to life, property and natural resources, air quality and public health impacts from wildfire smoke; and fire suppression costs."

Regarding air quality, biomass plants like the one proposed "scrub" the air of particulate matter and other contaminants, local leaders point out. Particulate matter is reduced by more than 99% with the advanced technologies utilized, compared to open burning.

The biomass plant is projected to create about 10 to 15 permanent full-time jobs at the power plant facility as well as another 100 jobs from ancillary jobs providing biomass material. Local leaders estimate another 200 jobs would be created during construction of the facility.

The city and county are nearing completion of an engineering and design study. The grant-funded $400,000 study that is slated for completion later this month would provide a site development analysis, and investment-grade fuel study, a preliminary permit assessment and a preliminary design. A front-end engineering and design (FEED) study will result in a report containing documents and drawings for process engineering; mechanical and piping; civil, structural and architectural; electrical and instrumentation; project schedule; and scope definition and cost estimate.

The study should provide better answers about where the facility would be built and when construction would begin. The study should also help determine how local leaders will secure a sustainable supply of biomass, a problem that has thwarted prior biomass facility efforts.

"It has always failed because you are never going to borrow money to build a facility based upon wood coming off of the federal forest — a lawsuit can stop any fuel stream," said City Engineer Eric Klann. "The real benefit we see this time is we'll have private wood contracts. Then as federal and state wood becomes available through a thinning contract, we can slow those private contracts down to accept the public wood."

Regarding location, Klann said project leaders haven't settled on an exact location, but they do plan to build it near the city rail line. He points out that rail is a cheaper shipping option than truck, and he notes that the city railway's connection to both Union Pacific and BNSF enables local leaders to bring in biomass supply from more distant locations, which increases the pool of potential private wood contracts.

Meanwhile, the construction timeline is tied to project leaders securing a power purchase agreement. Klann points out that biomass is a more expensive source of renewable energy but stresses other benefits that wind and solar can't match.

"Its baseload power is on 24 hours a day," he said, adding that support of biomass power generation helps improve forest management, enhance the local watershed and reduce the risk of massive wildfires.

"If we were able to go out and remediate some of these junipers, it would have a massive impact on the local watershed," he said. "Obviously, if we can get some forest health thinning contracts, that would greatly improve forest health and hopefully alleviate some of these catastrophic fires we are getting."

Once local leaders can find a customer, they could get a 20-year power purchase agreement in place and move forward toward construction.

If this project ultimately comes to fruition, community leaders would break new ground in biomass power generation in Oregon.

"Historically, there have been biomass facilities that were heavily subsidized by the state or the local electrical providers, and the majority of them were tied to a sawmill where they were burning residuals," Klann said. "I think this will be the first one that is put in more for forest health."

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