Oregon biomass electricity plant effort seeks energy buyer

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LA PINE, Ore. — A wood-burning power plant remains a possibility for La Pine, with the city now taking the lead on the project from Deschutes County and the company behind it waiting for a change in the energy market.

“It’s just been on hold due to market conditions,” said Rob Broberg, president of Biogreen Sustainable Energy Co. “And we plan on holding out until we are able to market and sell power.”

The company must find an energy buyer to make the planned plant economically viable, said Rick Allen, La Pine city manager.

“They need to find a power company that wants to buy their power,” he said. “That’s really the issue.”

The $75 million, 25-megawatt biomass plant would produce enough electricity to power about 19,000 homes, Broberg said. The plant would burn wood — limbs and other scrap left over after logging, debris from thinning projects and urban waste — to heat water, create steam and turn a turbine.

Interested power companies would likely be in California, where the state requires an increasing percentage of its power to come from “greener” sources such as biomass, wind and solar.

Biogreen has been considering a biomass plant in La Pine, which is surrounded by forest, for more than five years. The company has held land and building permits for the plant with Deschutes County, but those have expired.

Tom Anderson, Deschutes County administrator, said future dealings will be with the city of La Pine.

The power plant would sit on 19 1/2 acres in the La Pine Industrial Park, Broberg said. About 20 people would work at the plant and another 65 or so would work in the forest, gathering wood to burn. Given the number of thinning projects in the forests around La Pine aimed at reducing the chance of large wildfires, he figures there should be a steady supply of wood.

While not helping any group opposed to the planned plant in La Pine, Mike Ewall, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Energy Justice Network, said his nonprofit has helped stop other biomass projects in Oregon and around the country. He argues that biomass plants are “very polluting and very inefficient.”

“Anything that burns anything is not clean energy,” he said.

The Energy Justice Network has been fielding questions from people about a potential biofuels plant in Lakeview. The plant, proposed by Red Rock Biofuels in Fort Collins, Colo., would turn biomass into jet fuel and diesel, which would be shipped by train. The questions include how much air pollution the plant would create and how safe the railway shipping would be.

Calling the plan for biomass in La Pine a “very valuable project,” Biogreen’s Broberg said the power plant would generate less smoke than wood burned in open air.

Along with securing a power buyer for the planned La Pine plant, hurdles left for Biogreen to clear include water and labor. The plant would use about 300 gallons per minute on the hottest days of the year. Allen said that’s how much the whole city of La Pine currently uses on a hot day. City officials would want to be sure the city system could supply enough water to the plant, as well as to current and future customers.

“The city wants to make sure that we have enough water for commercial expansion,” Allen said. La Pine draws groundwater from wells to provide water for the growing city. The current water supply is ample, but not endless.

In 2011, Biogreen faced a labor union complaint saying the company wanted to avoid using union workers to build the plant. Broberg said the company has a tentative agreement with a union and the issue would be resolved if the plant goes ahead. Broberg declined to name the union.

Advocating for the planned biomass plant in La Pine, Roger Lee, executive director for the Economic Development for Central Oregon, said it would bring jobs to La Pine. But Biogreen has a long way to go before building.

“There are lots of complexities,” Lee said.