They've concluded biomass generation of heat and electricity would be clearly preferable to natural gas, a panel of Southern Oregon University and industry experts made clear at a public hearing Wednesday at the university in Ashland. 

SOU faces the need to replacement two aging gas-fired boilers in coming years. The panel outlined how the abundance of forest slash (branches from logging) would outpace the unpredictable but always more costly gas — and would stay within the air quality standards of the narrow Rogue Valley, where air can be trapped by inversion layers.

The system would cost $12 million, offset by $2 million to $4 million in state and federal grants and would mean five truckloads of biomass would be brought in daily and unloaded to a biomass plant near the stadium, said Marcus Kaufmann, a biomass resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. It would amount to an estimated 21,000 tons a year. (This paragraph has been corrected to reflect the actual estimate of the yearly amount of biomass needed to fuel the proposed plant.)

A big plus of biomass is that it would help SOU clear one of the main hurdles in trying to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality, since burning gas represents 80 to 90 percent of the carbon the school uses, said Drew Gilliland, SOU Director for Facilities, Management and Planning.

“We’re looking at biomass,” he said, “because we could achieve carbon neutrality with that alone.” 

If not burned for energy, the slash is “just laying there” in the forest and will pump carbon into the atmosphere as it decays anyway, he adds. Thus, the university is not adding to net carbon for the planet. 

While there is endless and increasing demand for natural gas, Kaufmann notes, that’s not the case for forest slash. 

“There’s five times the fuel in the region than SOU could use...It’s making use of an unused resource. We could take on a couple more projects like this, but we’re not likely to see that.” 

In addition, he says, any demand created by SOU will not impact higher value trees; slash will always be waste and use of it won’t affect family forests either. Burning biomass helps clean up forests, freeing the 10 percent of forest land occupied by slash, he says, thus allowing reforestation to proceed sooner. 

Solar accounts for 4 percent of SOU’s energy now and there’s a small amount of roof left on Stevenson Union and the Music Building to add more, said Gilliland.

He showed a short video explaining the advantages of biomass. 

Bill Carlson of Carlson Small Power Consultants conducted the earlier study for the project and noted co-generation (heat and power) was a much more efficient model than just power. His study notes it will cut out present fossil fuel use and boost the school’s carbon commitment. The project is modest, he adds, noting that big projects draw community opposition. 

Ashland resident John Fisher-Smith said biomass would add many particulates to the airshed and “our beloved Rogue Valley does not breathe well as polluted air is frequently trapped for weeks at a time, particularly in cold weather when we are enveloped in dense fog.” 

If slash were burned on-site, its carbon would likely not end up in our airshed, he said, adding that five diesel trucks a day to SOU would wear roads and add to air pollution. He called for an Environmental Impact Statement on the project. 

Power generated during low demand of warm months would be sold back to the grid, thus increasing the school’s sustainability, said Gilliland. The project options will be decided by the end of the year. The target date for coming online with the system would be the 2019-2020 year.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.