The stupid things that dioxycarbophobia makes people do…
There isn’t any coal to mine in Morrow County, Ore., but there’s a lot of cropland.
Those fields could soon prove useful for more than producing wheat, corn and potatoes. Because Oregon has decided it doesn’t want to keep drawing electricity from coal, the owner of the state’s only coal-fired power plant is trying its hand at agriculture.
Portland General Electric Co. is betting that a fuel of the future is Arundo donax, or giant cane, which grows wild in Greek backyards and has gained a reputation as a pesky weed in California, Texas and Florida.
With special machines that use a technique similar to roasting coffee, PGE would turn plant material into charred lumps that look like coal and burn like it, too. Fast-growing Arundo — it can grow as tall as 20 feet in a season — seems like an especially good feedstock for the fuel, but no one grows the plant commercially in Oregon, so the electric utility has had to figure some things out for itself.
“We checked all our job descriptions and didn’t find a single one that said ‘farmer,’ so guess what: We have a consultant out there,” said Wayne Lei, the company’s research and development director.
PGE has three local farmers raising plots of Arundo on 85 acres near the town of Boardman on the southern bank of the Columbia River. They will start harvesting reeds in a few weeks and continue through the fall.
If Arundo and other plants work as fuel, the 585-megawatt boiler in Boardman could end up generating more electricity from biomass than any power station in the country. And perhaps, the researchers working on the project say, it could become the model for utilities that want to cut the carbon emissions of coal plants without laying off longtime workers or making junk out of infrastructure that would cost billions of dollars to replace.
Even under the best circumstances, it will probably cost more to buy treated biomass than coal or natural gas. Coal comes ready to burn, having been cooked into an energy-dense fuel by the heat and pressure of the Earth over a long period of geological time.
But the aptly named Richard Boardman, a researcher at Idaho National Laboratory whose lab is analyzing the 15-plus plants being considered by PGE, hopes the Oregon power plant will start a trend. There is no doubt that American power companies could make major reductions in their carbon emissions if they swapped out some of their coal for biomass, he said.