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Aug. 14, 2020

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In Our View, Jan. 19: The Power of ‘Bio’

Pacific Northwest is showing the way for cutting-edge technologies

The Columbian
Published:

For more than two centuries, a pioneering spirit has forged the Pacific Northwest into one of America’s most advanced areas. The same creative ambition that spurred European-American settlement of the West now drives cutting-edge developments in “bio” technologies. The two most notable areas are biomass (using plant sources to produce renewable energy) and biofuels (liquid fuels derived from plants).

The irony is that mankind has dabbled in this science for millennia. And now, the ancient endeavor of coaxing multiple benefits from plants guides scientists and engineers to astoundingly advanced research and development. Here are two recent examples, one each from the state and local levels:

Last week, Peter Goldmark, Washington state’s commissioner of public lands, announced four partnerships between the Department of Natural Resources and private-sector companies; the projects will use biomass from state forestlands.

The project nearest this corner of the state is in Klickitat County, where Parametrix will convert woody biomass into liquid fuels at SDS Lumber in Bingen, using a technology known as fast pyrolysis. In Stevens County, Borgford BioEnergy will generate electricity, bio-oil, syngas and bio-char from wood waste. Atlas Products in Okanogan County will produce wood pellets for heating. And Nippon Paper Industries in Clallam County will use wood waste to co-generate heat and electricity at its paper mill; the excess energy will be sold.

Biomass technology offers multiple powerful benefits. It improves the environment by removing residual waste created by logging efforts, and by reducing slash-burning haze. It aids local and regional economies by creating jobs. And it advances the conversion to renewable energy sources, which in turn boosts the national drive to wean Americans from fossil fuels.

Biomass technology could have a dual impact on Southwest Washington. First, as we reported in an Aug. 17 editorial, Gifford Pinchot National Forest contains 40,000 acres that need thinning. Second, one example of the job-creation potential is an ongoing study by Clark County officials who want to know if the defunct International Paper plywood mill in Chelatchie Prairie could be converted into a biomass plant. Early indications are that the new plant would cost $69.8 million and could generate 20 megawatts of electricity. Already in Kettle Falls (northwest of Spokane) a former Washington Water Power Co. plant is producing electricity from wood waste, with a capacity of supplying enough power for 46,000 homes.

These four partnerships, Goldmark noted in a written statement, “have a huge potential to help encourage rural economic development and improve the health of fire-prone forests. This will hopefully be the beginning of a new green industry on state lands.” The Clallam County project, for example, is expected to help preserve 220 jobs at the paper mill.

Also last week, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced two biofuels research grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. A $7 million, three-year grant will be used by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland to develop biofuels in conjunction with Washington State University and private-sector companies. And a $7.2 million grant will enable PNNL to research the commercialization of algae-based biofuels, working with both WSU and the University of Washington.

Additionally, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $1.6 million for nine states, including Washington, for ethanol gas pumps at more than 60 gas stations, including six in Seattle.

Thanks to the efforts of Goldmark, Cantwell and other visionaries, the pioneering spirit continues to thrive in this corner of America.

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