Guest Opinion: SOU biomass burner would be big mistake

By Bob Palzer and Paul Fouch
Posted Jan. 14, 2015 @ 12:01 am

We are shocked that Southern Oregon University is proposing to replace its natural gas boilers with a highly polluting biomass cogeneration operation.
Decades of effort by industrial sources and individuals has reduced the use of wood for heat or power in the Rogue Valley. Now SOU proposes to haul wood waste from up to 50 miles away to burn on campus under the erroneous assumption that it will reduce carbon emissions, while trivializing the significant increase in particulate matter (PM) pollution. We challenge SOU, city and county officials to invoke a moratorium on this project to determine its legality and further evaluate its negative effect on the image, livability, health and air quality of Ashland and the sustainability of our tourist-reliant economy.
We also challenge concerned citizens to evaluate the truthfulness of pro-biomass contentions posted on the SOU biomass website compared with information on the Save Our Rural Oregon and Rogue Group Sierra Club websites and See also Then please contact SOU and city of Ashland officials and plead with them to install the far better natural gas option.
The SOU Cogeneration website states the goal is to reduce operating costs and carbon emissions. Although officials admit a new gas-fired cogeneration system would emit far less toxic air emissions than a biomass system, they marginalize its significance.
The Medford-Ashland area once had the third-highest PM pollution in the United States. A broad spectrum of stringent measures has brought this area into compliance with PM health standards. However, this area still has extensive periods of air stagnation when individuals must stop using woodstoves or operate them with no visible emissions, while the biomass incinerator would continue burning wood 24/7. Furthermore, startup, shutdown and burning wet, dirty or frozen fuel and other factors will produce multi-fold higher PM emissions.
SOU is focused on the short term and not the long-term viability of the project. It asserts that natural gas prices will keep rising and biomass prices will always be lower because current governmental subsidies, energy credits and other inducements will be permanently available. This ignores the fact that natural gas prices have been dropping for several years and are lower than their average price for the past 15 years. We contend the prices for both fuels will vary and cannot accurately be predicted over the long term by anyone.
Biomass would have to be trucked in by ugly chip trucks emitting hazardous pollution and noise and causing conflicts with school buses and cars on narrow Ashland streets. Biomass is far dirtier than clean-burning natural gas, which is readily available. An OSU forestry professor succinctly states: “Biomass has a lower energy density than fossil fuels, and is inefficient because its generally high moisture content requires that energy be expended to evaporate water before useful energy can be obtained. Because wood burns at a lower temperature than fossil fuels, the efficiency of electricity production is also lower. This means that in practice, burning biomass emits 150 percent of the carbon dioxide of coal, and 300-400 percent of the carbon dioxide of natural gas, per kilowatt of electricity generated.’’
Forests store carbon from the atmosphere. When burned, all the carbon that has been sequestered is instantly released back into the atmosphere. If trees grow back on those sites it would take multiple decades or longer to sequester an equivalent amount of carbon. That is beyond SOU’s goals to obtain carbon neutrality by 2050.
This facility will be in a residential neighborhood close to three large schools. Rather than an inconspicuous incinerator hidden on the campus, it will be highly visible as it emits ugly bellows of smoke and steam on a 24/7 basis. The uncontrolled chip pile will emit a similar volume of noxious emissions.
If SOU really wants to support the local economy and to provide leadership in integrating the principles of environmental, social and economic sustainability into campus planning and operation, it will drop its biomass proposal and go with the less problematic natural gas option.
Bob Palzer, PhD, is a retired SOU chemistry professor who has worked on improving air quality since moving to Ashland in 1986. He is also vice chairman of the Rogue Group Sierra Club. Paul Fouch, PE, is a retired manufacturing engineer living in Klamath Falls who has taught for 12 years at OIT and 3 years at SOU. He is currently president of Save Our Rural Oregon, which focuses on improving the air quality and livability in Southern Oregon communities.

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