In Our View: Analyzing Biomass

Cutting-edge power industry is taking hold in proposed Pacific Northwest projects

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Any industry — especially one that involves heat — will understandably encounter close scrutiny during its infancy. This is a good thing. As Americans are learning with our burning of fossil fuels to power vehicles, the earlier we can acquire a full understanding of the science, the better we can take care of our environment and protect public health.

Such is the dawning of the biomass power industry, which because of our widespread forests is establishing a growing presence in the Pacific Northwest. Along with wind, solar and geothermal power, biomass power has been designated by Congress as a renewable energy source because it burns wood slash from forests, leftovers from mill work and urban wood waste. This replenishing energy source, if not used in biomass projects, would otherwise rot on the forest floor or be burned in forest-thinning efforts or in natural forest fires. Better to use that heat in what biomass promoters describe as green energy, electricity layered upon the power grids.

The Columbian has repeatedly supported the biomass industry, but only as it passes scrutiny by informed scientists. If that examination results in a green light, even one with modifications, then great. That could bring key benefits to Clark County. For example, Amboy entrepreneur Bill Kravas is researching ways to build a biomass power plant at the Chelatchie Prairie industrial park on 15 acres of a 152-acre former plywood mill site. “We’ve had a lot of adversity but we’re making it happen,” Kravas said in a recent Columbian story by Libby Tucker. “I’ve been trying to get jobs up there for 20 years.”

Kravas envisions 20-30 workers at the plant, and if the biomass industry flourishes in the Northwest as many are hoping, it could produce hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new jobs. Clark County officials earlier looked at the potential of biomass, but backed away in the face of high costs.

Before anyone gets too excited, though, the industry must pass muster as applied by environmentalists. A large biomass power plant that’s proposed in Mason County near Shelton has drawn opposition from local residents who are concerned about air pollution. The Olympian newspaper recently quoted Nancy Hirsh of the Northwest Energy Coalition: “A lot depends on where the wood comes from, the efficiency of the boilers and what would have happened to the wood waste if it wasn’t burned.”

And that question is the fuel that drives advocates of biomass. Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, wrote in a recent op-ed that “increasing our use of biomass power will improve forest health in Washington and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Biomass power is carbon-neutral electricity generated from renewable organic waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfills, openly burned or left as fodder for forest fires.”

On the more technical, scientific level, Cleaves explains: “For example, fossil fuels increase the level of carbon in our atmosphere because their carbon has been sequestered for centuries deep in the Earth. Biomass power taps into a fuel supply that is already actively releasing methane and carbon during the decomposition process. This carbon is already in the atmospheric cycle, and biomass plants simply use it to create electricity.”

Whether that argument is compelling enough to guide the Kravas and Mason County projects through successful completion of rigorous permitting processes remains to be seen. Already, though, we know that biomass power is a cutting-edge, and therefore exciting, business. If the intense analysis shows it to be a truly green source of energy, and if that leads to new jobs in a relatively clean industry, then hooray for all of us in the Pacific Northwest.