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SOU sees biomass horizons

Southern Oregon University officials say a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of a 1.2-megawatt, woody-biomass cogeneration plant on campus may lead to the real deal.

Such a power plant could meet 100 percent of SOU's electrical needs as well as 70 percent of its heating demand, they said.

"SOU is strongly committed to environmental sustainability," said university President Mary Cullinan in a prepared statement. "Our plan is to make the campus climate-neutral by 2050, so biomass may be one option for us."

The grant award announced this week comes at an opportune time, said Drew Gilliland, SOU's director of facilities management and planning.

"Two of our four steam heat boilers are nearing the end of their useful life," he said. "If we were to make this change, the remaining two boilers would be converted to back up heat generation when needed."

The two older boilers, now heated by natural gas with an oil backup, are more than 40 years old, he said, adding, "We cross our fingers when we start them."

Two of the older boilers were replaced a few years ago, but SOU didn't have the money to replace all four, he said.

"We have to use all of them in winter when we have full demand," he said.

The study, which could take up to two years to complete, will involve engaging the community in a discussion on producing local energy through cogeneration, Gilliland said.

The focus would be on the feasibility of using slash and other byproducts from nearby forests, wood pellets or other biomass fuel to generate heat and electricity needed on campus, he said. In addition, the study would confirm whether the recommended system meets the requirements of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and other regulatory agencies, officials said.

If a woody-biomass plant were built on the SOU campus, Gilliland estimates it would cost close to $12 million.

The nearest school using wood to fuel its boiler is Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction, which is using pellets, he noted.

"We want to consider all options — pellets, woody debris and other by-products," he said. "In this part of the state, it's important to look at this."

The city is interested in helping the largest customer of its municipally owned electric utility on the project, said Lee Tuneberg, acting assistant city administrator.

"We look forward to working with the university as they develop this alternate energy source that could benefit the college and the residents of Ashland," he said.

The grant was included in the $1.3 million in grants the department announced for wood energy projects in the Pacific Northwest to help expand regional economies and create new jobs.

All six projects in Oregon and Washington will use woody material, such as beetle-killed trees removed from forests to aid in wildfire prevention, according to the department. The material then will be processed in bio-energy plants to produce green energy for heating and electricity, it added.

"This grant is great news for Southern Oregon University and the future of biomass energy in the region," said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in a release. "I am a strong supporter of investment in alternative forms of energy, and the woody-biomass cogeneration system has the potential to be efficient, effective and environmentally friendly."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.