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Southern Oregon University Wants To Lead Pacific Northwest in Campus Biomass

Southern Oregon University Facilities Manager Drew Gilliland wants to replace the natural gas boilers on campus with biomass cogeneration.
Southern Oregon University Facilities Manager Drew Gilliland wants to replace the natural gas boilers on campus with biomass cogeneration.

ASHLAND, Ore. -- Southern Oregon University is vying to join a small but growing number of campuses around the country turning to biomass energy -- or put more simply, burning wood and forest debris -- to produce power on campus.

Tucked away on the backside of Southern Oregon University is a modest 1950s-era warehouse. Puffs of cloud-white steam emerge from the smokestack on top. They're a result of burning natural gas to produce heat for the campus.

“Of course we’ve been able to make the repairs to keep them going. Like a good ol’ car, you can keep making repairs as long as you can,” Gilliland said. “But they’re not very efficient.”

At this point, Gilliland says it makes more sense to replace the boilers and to use the opportunity to rethink Southern Oregon’s use of natural gas.

“That’s a dirty little secret about natural gas is when it’s cheap, these large producers of electricity will switch to that for their fuel. And then, of course, as it gets higher they’ll go back to coal,” Gilliland said.

“That’s why as we look at our fuel costs, we want something that’s a little more reliable and local,” he said.

The idea: build a new steam heat and electricity (called cogeneration) facility that gets away from fossil fuels. Their answer is biomass.

An added bonus is that, if done right, biomass can be a low-carbon energy source, said Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There’s good biomass and there’s bad biomass from a carbon emissions perspective and it’s really critical to distinguish between the two,” she said.

The latter is what Southern Oregon University intends to do.

But the question remains whether burning any wood to generate electricity is any better than burning natural gas, or even coal.

The carbon debt of biomass is paid down as forests regrow, but that could take years or even decades. For those focused on how much carbon is in the air and contributing to climate change today, biomass is not the best option.

Of course the exact accounting of the carbon impact of biomass depends on several factors: what kind of material is used, how and why that material was harvested, what would be done with the material if it isn’t burned in a biomass power facility?

Oregon State University Forestry Professor David Smith argues that slash material left in the forest would be burned or left to decay anyway.

“But if we divert the material to a biomass boiler, we can capture that energy as it goes through the cycle,” said Smith.

Looking for low-carbon options has become somewhat of an obsession of institutions of higher ed across the country. Nearly 700 have signed up for the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment – setting a carbon neutrality target date and taking steps to meet it.

Brett Pasinella is with the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. He said universities go through a progression when trying to reach carbon goals. They start with efficiency and move on to changing behaviors on campus.

“But then after that, then you have to really look at how you’re generating heat and electricity on campus or where you’re purchasing from and start making changes to your energy system,” he said.

Some universities have even installed wind turbines. But that may not be an option, depending wind, campus footprint and location.

Southern Oregon wants to avoid this kind of outcome and recently held a public meeting to address local concerns. Most of the questions focused on pollution and the poor air quality in the Rogue Valley.

Talent resident Steven Petrovic questioned the biomass proposal, saying already pollution in the Rogue Valley is visible from the hiking trails above Ashland.

Ashland resident John Fisher-Smith said he wears masks when the amount of particulate matter is high. He worried how yet another source of particulate matter will effect the quality of life in his hometown.

“Why not make public health in Ashland the primary, first criteria and go from there?” he asked.

Looking up at the large boilers currently heating SOU, Drew Gilliland said, bottom line, biomass is good economics. But it will also catapult the university far beyond most on climate goals.

“We’re excelling. We do have modern facilities, we are really thinking about the future, and impact on the environment,” he said.

If it all goes smoothly, officials hope to have the plant up and running by 2017. But Gilliland said he’s trying not to get too attached to the project, in case things go sour. The university said a biomass power plant on campus would offset about 90 percent of SOU’s emissions, which brings it almost all the way to its goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. And that, Gilliland said, is something that reflects well on the entire Southern Oregon University community.

“So, yeah. Is that a sense of pride?" he asked. "Darn right it is.”

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Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.