WHITE CITY — When Toby Sakraida, a shift supervisor at the Biomass One cogeneration plant, opened a heavy metal door to reveal glowing orange embers in a wood-burning boiler late Friday morning, he could have been peering into Dante's inferno.
But U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., although he stepped back to avoid the furnace's 1,700-degree fire, says wood waste being turned into energy is a boon to the state. "It is good for jobs, good for clean energy and good for the forests," he said during a tour of the plant. "That's a pretty powerful opportunity for Oregon."
Wyden inspected the facility after meeting with a dozen people, from biomass operators to representatives of the timber industry, as well as a small-diameter tree collaborative and an environmental group, all of whom voiced support for biomass as an alternative energy in Oregon.
But many expressed concern about too little wood coming from federal forestlands, citing government inaction and red tape. Locally overgrown forests pose a severe fire threat to the region come summer, Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, told Wyden.
Western Oregon needs a program similar to one the senator pushed through east of the Cascades, in which the timber industry and environmentalists worked with him to produce timber and wood waste while improving forest health and reducing the threat of devastating fires, Schott said.
"We've been very lucky we haven't had a big fire here in the past couple of years," he observed, later noting that forest-thinning projects can provide wood for the timber industry and fuel for biomass plants.
Noting his group supports biomass energy efforts, Mike Dennis of Portland, representing nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, also voiced concerns about the potential for catastrophic wildfires.
Estimating there are currently about 8.5 million acres of overgrown forest in Oregon which could be lost to wildfires, Dennis called for more efforts like the Ashland Creek forest restoration project to reduce the unnatural buildup of fuels caused largely by fire suppression in the past century. "Biomass would help pay for pay for forest-health projects like that," Wyden agreed.
If the fuel is available, Biomass One, which employs 65 people, could easily be producing power and jobs for decades to come, offered Greg Blair, managing general partner of Biomass One.
"It's like an old Volvo that has been well cared for — we can run another 30 years," Blair said of Biomass One, which went online in 1987. It burns wood waste to create steam and electricity, producing about 30 megawatts annually, enough to provide power for nearly 20,000 houses a year.
In Josephine County, the Rough & Ready Co. sawmill half a dozen miles south of Cave Junction has a smaller cogeneration plant, which was first fired up three years ago, generating about 1.5 megawatts.
Company president Link Phillippi said there is very little wood being made available on federal land, although Uncle Sam owns the lion's share of woodlands in the region. His firm relies on private land for its logs and boiler fuel, he said.
"But we don't live on biomass alone," he said of the mill, which has about 85 employees. "You can't have biomass without a log supply."
Because very few timber sales are available on local federal forestlands, the firm now gets its logs from 150 to 200 miles away, he said. "We used to get our source in our backyard."
Ken Cummins, regional manager for Forest Capital Partners, a timber firm, complained that federal agencies can take years to make a decision compared with an industrial land owner, who can make a decision and take action on private land in a matter of days.
Jack LeRoy, a partner in Forest Energy Group LLC, a firm which focuses on forest health and stewardship projects, told Wyden that a federal government program created to help biomass efforts was of no help.
Wyden, who is stepping up to chair the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee following the retirement of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., promised he would move quickly to look into their concerns.
"But we have made some progress in the last few months," Wyden told the group, referring to a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency early this year to ease up on regulating global-warming pollution from facilities that burn biomass.
Wyden, along with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., had pushed hard for that action, noting that federal rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions unintentionally could delay plans to produce clean, renewable power. They had argued that biomass plants should be considered carbon neutral if emissions are counted as something that would be released anyway when wood rots.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber also has supported biomass energy plants as a way to provide jobs while helping to thin forests at high danger for wildfire.
During the tour of Biomass One with Wyden, Blair noted that his firm closed down a biomass plant in Maine two years ago.
"The fuel got too expensive, and the energy values in that market were not sufficient to sustain that operation," he said. "It was mothballed largely because of policies not recognizing all the social benefits of biomass in terms of forest-health management."
"That's why it is so important to get the federal rules right," Wyden responded. "Some of the states have looked at approaches back East that are anti-biomass. We are finally getting the federal government to look at it as a renewable energy resource that is good for the forest and good for the environment."
Echoing an issue brought up by Schott during the meeting, Wyden said he wants to create a collaborative forest program west of the Cascades that brings groups such as the timber industry and environmental groups together to find solutions.
"When I look at the future of the Oregon economy, clearly we've got to develop smart policies for managing our natural resources," he said. "By any calculation, what Biomass One is doing is an important part of the economy for Oregon. And I think it is the future of the industry. They are pioneers."
After the session with Wyden, Phillippi said he was optimistic change is on the horizon to improve prospects for biomass energy in Oregon.
"Getting biomass right now is as difficult as getting affordable logs — it's a challenge," he said. "We are getting it off private land in the Illinois Valley now. The federal government just needs to come up with a sensible forest management program.
"But, as I told the senator, biomass doesn't stand alone as an industry," he added. "It needs the timber industry alongside it."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.