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Sorghum-powered plant on track

Biomass, bio-gas generators will operate side-by-side


East Oregonian Publishing Group

Boardman, Ore., farmer Joe Taylor ventured into uncharted territory when he planted high-biomass sorghum last spring.

But by joining the growers' cooperative Agri Energy Producers Association, he didn't just invest in the cutting edge of green energy production. He invested in Morrow County. His sorghum is destined for the soon-to-be-revived Heppner Power Plant.

"I thought it had some potential," he said, gazing at his irrigated circle of fully grown sorghum. "I look at it as a long-range plan."

Taylor was among the small crowd of people who watched the ceremonial first cutting of his crop Oct. 26. An enormous forage harvester, imported from Idaho for the occasion, swept through several yards of the corn-like crop, chopped it into small pieces and transferred it into a bankout wagon.

A film crew interviewed the driving forces behind the cooperative, Lance Wells and Kurt Christensen, while representatives from the California-based seed company Ceres Inc., which developed the seed, stood by.

This season's harvest is the cooperative's first on a large scale. Last year, it harvested less than 50 acres of sorghum; this year, members in the Columbia Basin will cut 600 acres of the crop, while those in the Nyssa area are harvesting 900 acres.

Christensen said the cooperative is the first to grow such a quantity of high-biomass sorghum in Oregon, and possibly the United States. Agri Energy Producers Association jumped onto the biomass-for-energy scene quickly, has aggressively recruited growers and made ambitious plans.

Throughout the planning process, Christensen said, state and federal agencies have supported the effort. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, for example, offers financial assistance to growers.

"We've made steps in this that many companies would have thought were going too fast," Christensen said. "But it has put us in a position where we're ready now to take our cooperative nationwide."

Burning sorghum for electricity may not sound like a "green" proposition, but Christensen said the plant, which has an extensive root system, sequesters so much carbon during its growth cycle that the entire production is carbon-negative. Unlike ethanol, which requires more energy to produce that it provides, the simple steps in biomass energy generation -- grow, cut, press, burn -- result in a net energy gain.

What sets Agri Energy Producers apart, Christensen said, is its use of the entire sorghum plant to produce energy, both the fiber and the juice.

The juice goes into a digester, or bio-gas power plant, while the fiber burns in a biomass power plant. At the Heppner site, the systems will stand side-by-side.

The unusable heat from the biomass plant -- 300 degrees and less -- will heat the digester.

On top of revenue from long-range power purchasing agreements, the cooperative can also sell sorghum pellets.

Wells said he and Christensen are in the midst of negotiating a contract for up to 500,000 tons per year of pellets. Such an agreement would require around 25,000 acres of sorghum, but the developers are shooting high: They plan to have 30,000 acres in production next year.

So far, things are a bit slow-moving at the Heppner Power Plant. Christensen said their goal of having it running by the first quarter of next year may be delayed until the financing is complete. Taylor's sorghum will sit in a silage pile until the plant is ready.

Christensen said the refurbished 12 megawatt plant will employ between 13 and 19 people.


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