Area growers say too much farmland will be taken over
By MITCH LIES
BOARDMAN, Ore. -- Portland General Electric is looking to giant cane as a future energy source for its coal-fired power plant in Boardman.
The cane could allow PGE to keep its plant in operation past 2020, when the company has agreed to stop burning coal there. And it will reduce the utility's carbon footprint by transforming the 585 megawatt plant from an emitter of greenhouse gases to carbon-neutral.
But Hermiston-area growers question whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and are concerned over transferring thousands of food-producing acres to energy use.
"Growers are concerned," said Oregon State University agronomist Don Horneck. "This is the breadbasket of Oregon. You're pushing out crops that literally feed the world."
The project would require converting between 60,000 and 90,000 irrigated acres from food or feed production to cane production, according to PGE projections.
"Once you get to 90,000 acres, you are started to talk about nearly half the area's (220,000) irrigated acres," Horneck said.
Even at the low-end, farmers are worried the transformation risks a critical mass of crop production needed to supply the area's half-dozen or so food processing plants, said Bob Levy, vice chair of the Oregon Board of Agriculture and a Hermiston-area farmer.
"We want the jobs (at the plant) and we want to keep the plant running," Levy said, "but in a way that won't be a burden on the local agricultural economy and the processing industry."
PGE employees 110 full-time workers at the plant and contracts for another 30 year-round jobs that serve the plant.
In its transformation plan, PGE is looking to utilize a relatively new woody biomass conversion process known as torrefaction to precondition the giant cane as a fuel source. The process would allow PGE to continue to operate the plant without retooling.
Tests show the process works. And research shows giant cane, or Arundo donax, yields exceptionally high volumes of biomass.
PGE spokesman Steve Corson, said the cane needs to be grown near the site of PGE's torrefaction plant to minimize transportation costs.
"We are going to need a lot of it, and it needs to be close by," Corson said. "But we think at this point, there is no reason this couldn't work."
The idea is taking shape in two test fields near the Boardman plant and in plots Horneck operates at the nearby Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. PGE and Horneck are gauging the plant's adaptability to local growing conditions, and analyzing whether the plant poses a risk as an invasive weed.
The cane, which is grown commercially as a source for reed instruments, is considered a weed in much of the Southern U.S.
But Horneck and Scott Russell, PGE's biomass project manager, said the plant doesn't pose a high risk in the Hermiston area, in part because it doesn't go to seed in the Northwest, so would spread solely by rhizomes.
"From what I know today," Horneck said, "fears (the plant poses an invasive risk) are vastly overblown. This is a weed of riparian areas. We don't see those types of weeds very often."
Washington State University researchers tested Arundo donax for six years for paper and pulp production and were able to eradicate it at the conclusion of the test, Russell said.
"That gave us comfort moving forward in the knowledge that we can control it," Russell said.
If all goes as planned, PGE could start using the cane in 2021 to power the plant in fall and spring months when energy usage is low.
PGE plans a test burn in 2013.
The utility earlier this summer agreed to stop burning coal at the plant in 2020.
Russell said PGE has no desire to upset the crop balance in the basin or to negatively affect the area's economy.
"The last thing we want to do is save our plant at the expense of the local economy," Russell said.
The company hopes the cane provides farmers an economically attractive rotation crop that can be grown for four to five years at a stretch, Russell said.
The cane, which can grow to 30 feet tall, would be planted in the fall and probably wouldn't produce a crop until the second summer. It is expected to yield 45 to 50 green tons per acre.
"At the end of the day," Russell said, "if the growers don't want it, they're not going to grow it."