Biomass or natural gas? 

Southern Oregon University is tossing around the idea of heating the campus by way of a biomass cogeneration facility to replace a pair of worn out, gas-fired boilers, but it wants community input before moving forward.

A forum to discuss what options are on the table and whether SOU should wean itself off its dependency on natural gas starts at 6 p.m. today in the Rogue River Room of the Stevenson Union on the SOU campus.

“We are a member of this community and this is a major initiative for the university that will impact the community and we want to hear from the community moving forward one way or the other,” said Ryan Brown, SOU’s head of community and media relations. “It’s really an opportunity for the community to let us know what they think about the specific project, what they think about biomass. If there are concerns it’s a chance to raise those concerns.”

SOU funded pair of studies in 2012 and 2013 with a $250,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored grant to compare the benefits and efficiencies of natural gas to biomass, and the results point to the latter, said Drew Gilliland, director of facilities, management and planning at SOU.

On top of being able to produce steam to heat the campus by way of biomass cogeneration, the university would be able to produce enough electricity to offset its annual usage, a big step in helping SOU reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, Gilliland said.

If SOU did begin to produce its own electricity, the school would continue purchasing electricity from the city of Ashland, but sell back enough into the grid to offset its usage, Gilliland said.

“We need to be at the forefront of being environmentally conscious and one of the ways you can do that is by generating electricity locally instead of transporting it across lines where you lose a lot,” he said. “Here in the heart of timber country, why not biomass?”

According to a wood products availability study the university commissioned, there is ample fuel within 30 miles of Ashland to keep the proposed 1.2 megawatt power unit running.

Biomass fuel, says a university website (www.soucogeneration.org), "typically comes from forestry byproducts, such as tree tops, limbs, and small non-merchantable logs left over from timber harvesting and from forest restoration; wood mill residues; and clean urban wood waste."

The fuel is burned to create steam to heat campus buildings and turn a turbine to generate electricity.

The burning in efficient boiler systems produces far less air pollution than burning slash piles, prescribed burning or catastrophic wildfires, according to the university, and far fewer emissions than typical residential wood stoves per ton of fuel. A Biomass One plant in White City uses an air-quality system to reduce the smoke particulates it emits from burning wood waste and emits only one particulate for every 500 particulates that would be emitted from open burning of wood waste, according to the company.

The cost of building a biomass cogeneration facility would be in the ballpark of $12 million, Brown said, but the university expects it could offset as much as $5 million by way of federal and state grants.

The estimated cost of two new gas-fired boilers is about $8.5 million, he said.

A new biomass facility most likely would be located along Wightman Street near McNeal Pavilion and would require fuel delivery from large trucks, Gilliland said. Trucks would travel west on Ashland Street to Siskiyou Boulevard, where they would head northwest for less than a block before making a right to the north on Wightman. The existing heat plant is south of Hannon Library.

At the earliest, the plant could be up and running by 2017, he said.

“Before we do any of this we have to get a buy-in from the community,” Gilliland said. “We want to hear what people think.”

Reach freelance reporter Sam Wheeler at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.