Biomass test on track near Hermiston

Capital Press file Scott Russell, a project manager at Portland General Electric, displays a stalk of giant cane, or Arundo donax, growing in a field in August 2011 near the Port of Morrow. PGE is experimenting with using the cane to replace coal as a fuel source for its Boardman, Ore., power plant.

Robust growth of giant cane reported; up to 30 tons expected per acre


Capital Press

HERMISTON, Ore. -- A Portland General Electric official said Nov. 30 the company is going forward with a pilot project to see if giant cane is a viable fuel source for its Boardman, Ore., power plant.

Wayne Lei, who is heading the biomass project, told participants at the Hermiston Farm Fair that PGE officials are pleased with what they've seen in the first year of the project.

The crop performed about as expected, he said, despite a late planting date and a cold, wet spring.

The 100 or so acres planted in Eastern Oregon reached a height of 7 to 8 feet in the Boardman area, and 12 feet in the Burns area, Lei said.

"I expect it to get to 15 or 18 feet after the establishment year," Lei said.

The company anticipates generating 25 to 30 dry tons of biomass per acre from the cane after the perennial crop becomes established, Lei said.

Lei said several factors motivated PGE officials to look to giant cane as a fuel source, including the state's renewable portfolio standard that calls for 25 percent of the state's energy to come from renewable resources by 2025.

"That's a lot of power generation we don't have right now in this renewable field," he said.

PGE also has been ordered to stop using coal to power its Boardman plant by 2020.

PGE plans to turn the crop into bricks through a process called torrefaction. That will allow PGE to transform its coal-fired power plant to a biomass plant at minimal expense, Lei said.

The company is less attracted to wind power and solar power because they are sporadic sources. Biomass can provide a steady stream of power, he said.

Ultimately, he said, whether the company goes forward with its plans for giant cane depends on whether a test fire proves successful and enough growers agree to produce the crop. The company needs between 70,000 and 80,000 acres to meet its demand, he said.

With giant cane's water and nutrient needs similar to other crops, Lei said, PGE hopes the crop will be a viable option.

For now, the company plans to push ahead though to a 2014 test burn, when it will run the plant for 24 hours on giant cane.

"If we can pass that test, it is game on," he said.

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