Fighting the Good Fight

Biomass thermal coincides with the Oregon Army National Guard's energy security goals and has larger-picture benefits such as aiding wildfire reduction and job creation.
By Sue Retka Schill | October 25, 2013

Pellet boiler heating systems will help the Oregon Army National Guard meet its ambitious goal of net zero energy at all of its 53 installations statewide by 2020. ORARNG, which volunteered to participate in broader initiative of 19 pilot projects at U.S. Army sites across the country targeting net zero energy, water and waste, has four thermal pellet heat projects planned at National Guard sites. These projects offer a couple of benefits for ORARNG, says Lt. Col. Ken Safe, construction and facility management officer and Net Zero Energy project lead. “It allows us to reduce our energy cost, because the sites where we’re doing the conversion are on propane,” he says. “The more substantial benefit for the net zero program is it allows us to get off fossil fuels and go to renewable energy.”

In addition to reducing energy costs and aiding sustainability goals, the net zero  program has energy security and independence goals as well. A net zero energy installation is one that produces as much energy onsite as it uses over the course of a year. ORARNG expects that 65 percent of the reduction from its 2003 energy baseline will come from improved energy efficiency. And, while the unit is looking at multiple renewable technologies including solar, geothermal, wind and wave energy, wood-to-energy rates high for thermal heat since it can be produced on the site where it is consumed, Safe points out, compared to renewable electricity that is transported or given renewable energy credits as offsets.

Partnering For Pellets

ORARNG has partnered with others in its planning efforts, receiving a $250,000 woody biomass utilization grant from the U.S. Forest Service in 2012 for design work, plus a $489,000 renewable thermal incentive from the Oregon Department of Energy. And, the project has received funding from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities Inc., with one product being a case study done by Dovetail Partners Inc. on the lessons learned from aggregating multiple projects into one planning process. Energy efficiency consulting firm Tetra Tech Inc. is helping with coordination and review of the project design and did the initial evaluation, which identified buildings and locations for possible conversion.

Seven National Guard buildings at five locations were identified where biomass-fired boilers would be a cost-effective replacement for propane heating systems. Buildings at three of the National Guard facilities already have hot water boilers installed, making the conversion to pellet-fired biomass boilers relatively easy. The Burns Armory in Burns, Ore., is a typical older armory, a 12,000-square-foot facility built around 1954. The Biak Training Center in Powell Butte, Ore., will convert to a pellet system to heat 20,000 square feet in a simulation center, classroom and administrative building. Conversion at the Youth Challenge Program facility in Bend, Ore., housing an academy for at-risk youth, has a favorable payback compared to other facilities due to its high heating and domestic hot water use for 10 months a year. Biomass conversion will be a bit more complicated for the maintenance shop at the Central Oregon Unit Training and Equipment Site in Redmond. The 10,000-square-foot building with its high bays and a few offices currently has a direct-fired radiant heat system.

McKinstry Essention Inc. was awarded the design-build contract in late September for the installation of the biomass pellet boilers, storage and handling equipment, as well as associated safety and efficiency systems. SolaGen Inc. is supplying the biomass boilers. The Burns Armory is the smallest system with one 150 kilowatt (kW) unit. Biak is slated for one 220 kW boiler and COUTES for one 540 kW unit. The Bend Youth Challenge Program center would use two units, sized at 220 kW and 400 kW. The Biak and COUTES projects have been funded and construction is expected to be completed in April, while the Burns funding request is pending approval. The four heating conversions will annually replace 58,551 gallons of propane with 183 tons of pellets to achieve $85,000 in savings each year.

As project planning unfolded, plans for biomass utilization at the Umatilla Training expanded. Initially, the ORARNG was looking at utilizing three pellet heating systems for the dining hall, a barracks and a simulation center, but wanted to study the possibility of building a single system or even a combined-heat-and-power system. As investigation proceeded and more was learned about the Army facility’s future following the Base Realignment and Closure process, the ORARNG realized it could have as many 25 or 30 buildings for its use, with other buildings being transferred to an adjacent Native American tribe and county. Thus, a larger system is now being considered that would utilize wood chips for district heating and power generation. A second $250,000 WBUG grant was awarded for the design, plus a $50,000 Wood Energy Cluster grant from the Oregon DOE and USFS. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended the project be ranked as one of the Army’s top-five priorities for funding through its Energy Conservation Investment Program. That project is expected to replace 258,910 gallons of propane used yearly with 2,004 tons of wood chips for an annual savings of $362,000.

Bountiful Benefits

The multiple partners in the ORARNG project reflect the multilayered benefits being anticipated from the biomass energy projects. “Oregon was a pilot state for a wood-to-energy effort with the forest service,” says Ron Saranich, regional biomass coordinator with the USDA Forest Service. “Facilities that are eligible are all sited in areas where we wanted to do hazardous fuel reduction—basically east and central Oregon where the high threat of fire danger and overgrown forest is located.”

Oregon is adopting a wood energy cluster approach, explains Matt Krumenauer, senior policy analyst for Oregon’s Department of Energy. “Right now the smaller projects that are able to offset heat load at facilities are very competitive and able to be developed with pretty good energy savings and other benefits. Clustering multiple projects in a given geographic area begins to develop the sort of demand that helps meet land management objectives.” Besides reducing fire risks in overgrown forests, the state seeks to foster economic development and job creation in communities that have been impacted by the decline in forestry products, he adds, plus there is another long-term strategy. “Creating this opportunity to keep people working in the woods, to keep producing pellets and woodchips and other products locally helps us maintain that workforce so as these new markets and opportunities for more advanced fuels develop, we have the skills and infrastructure and people in place to take advantage of those opportunities and continue to grow that industry.”

“It’s really exciting to feel like you’re part of a broader goal,” Safe adds. “We have a forest health situation in Oregon where we’re at risk of wild fires, and to some degree pine beetles and other insects with the congestion in forests. From forest health to jobs for local economy, both in the forest and the manufacturing of pellets all the way to transportation, there’s a number of jobs added at the local level.”

With the National Guard ultimately being a community-based organization, pellets are a good fit. As the gas heating systems in other guard facilities around the state reach replacement age, Safe says, he will recommend they take a closer look at biomass thermal heat. “We’ll be getting the net zero thermal renewable credit, as well as helping the local economy.”

While replacing currently low-priced natural gas isn’t a cost savings right now, Safe points out that [the market] is hard to predict five or 10 years ahead. “I’ve been raising the question when I give talks about our Net Zero Energy program,” he adds.  “Even as a backup system, the more, the better in my opinion.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Biomass Magazine