Oregon Governor Eyes Biomass Strategy

Gov. Ted Kulongoski says Oregon can prevent wildfires by thinning forests and using the timber to create electricity. He says the strategy will create jobs and improve the health of the forest. Environmentalists aren't so sure.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Sometimes fires can be helpful to a forest, because if the forest doesn't burn, it gets thicker and thicker and the fire is even worse when it finally comes. That's one of the reasons that Oregon politicians want to thin the state's forests, and they want to do it by using wood that's cut down not for lumber but for electricity. That's making some environmentalists uneasy.

Ann Dornfeld of member station KLCC in Eugene reports.

ANN DORNFELD: On a soggy spring day, this Overgrown Douglas fir plantation seems an unlikely candidate for wildfire. But Andy Stahl with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says come August this forest will be a tinderbox.

Mr. ANDY STAHL (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics): And you can see around us the reason why. Right down to the forest floor we have dead branches of these trees. And those are like ladders. They'll carry the flames right up into the canopy in a heartbeat.

DORNFELD: Instead of letting wildfires burn these trees, Oregon politicians want to beat Mother Nature to the punch. They propose thinning the forests and burning the wood at special power plants to produce electricity. The idea isn't as revolutionary as it sounds.

Paper mills like this Warehouser(ph) plant in Springfield, Oregon have been turning wood waste into electricity for decades.

Mr. BILL McMAHON (District Energy Now): You can't make a product out of it, but yet it has fuel value and so we recuperate the fuel value, so we don't throw it away.

DORNFELD: Bill McMahon leads the process called cogeneration. Here's how wood becomes electricity. They first dissolve wood chips in a chemical broth that separates the wood into its components. The main component is fiber or cellulose. That's turned into paper. What's left over is the wood glue or lignin. It's cooked down to a thick syrup known as black liquor and burned in this furnace.

Mr. McMAHON: This liquor is very similar to fuel oil. So we basically pump it with pump. Soon as that liquor goes in it so hot, it basically evaporates the water, blows up like popcorn.

DORNFELD: Essentially the water in the liquor turns to steam, which spins the turbine. That turbine powers a generator, which creates enough electricity to power 6,000 homes. The mill uses most of the electricity on site. But extra power is put on to the local grid.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski wants to use this technology on a massive scale in wood burning or biomass power plants across the state. It's part of his plan to make Oregon a leader in renewable energy.

Governor TED KULONGOSKI (Democrat, Oregon): Biomass is a tremendous project to be able to do that, because one, you create the jobs; two, you produce electricity. And then the third thing is, it's a great way to make a more healthier forest, in a sense, in getting the fuel load off.

DORNFELD: Many environmentalists bristle at the notion of using forest as a renewable energy source. Sierra Club regional representative, Paul Shively, says his group sees a place for biomass...

Mr. PAUL SHIVELY (Portland Sierra Club): But if it's to go in and clear cut our forest to thin in a manner that gets into old growth forest, then that's not the place for it.

DORNFELD: The federal government is offering billions of dollars for startup biomass projects, the same kind of subsidies that have gone to Midwest farmers for corn ethanol production. Andy Stahl with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says he thinks that inspired Oregon's sudden interest in this old technology.

Mr. STAHL: It looks like what Oregon is trying to do is figure out a way to get on the same gravy train that Iowa is on. Either way you slice it, it's a bad use of taxpayers' dollars. And ultimately, firewood is not the best use of our national forests.

DORNFELD: Stahl says that even with heavy subsidies, biomass plants will never be able to compete with the northwest inexpensive hydropower. Still, biomass plants are in the works across the state. The largest, in southern Oregon, is slated to begin operation next year.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld in Eugene, Oregon.

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