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Biomass and Boardman

In roughly a decade, Oregon will have completely phased out coal. Portland General Electric’s Boardman power plant, the last operating coal-fired station in the state, is scheduled to shut down by 2020. More on that further down.
By Anna Simet | October 16, 2015

In roughly a decade, Oregon will have completely phased out coal. Portland General Electric’s Boardman power plant, the last operating coal-fired station in the state, is scheduled to shut down by 2020.

More on that further down.

Recently, a new ballot measure has proposed to take things further. It caught my eye because its main purpose is to eliminate coal power in Oregon by 2030. After a minute of confusion, I realized it isn’t referring to power generated in state—it is aimed at utilities drawing coal-derived power from out of state. According to the Sierra Club, one-third of the power used in the state still comes from coal power.

That raises the issue of, as my friend John Ackerly discussed in a Biomass Magazine column a few months ago, exporting energy impacts. Drawing on more the same kind of power from across state lines detracts from the accomplishment of going “coal free.”

We’ll see where this ballot measure goes (it’s intended to go to a public vote during next year’s election). I saw some reports that said it needed about 1,000 more signatures when it was filed a couple weeks ago.

So back to Boardman. It’s a fairly young plant, and over the past several years, PGE has been grappling over its fate. It’s ruled out spending around $470 million in upgrades required to keep running until 2040, and after investigating repowering with natural gas, that was ruled out as well, as the plant’s current Rankine cycle boiler is not efficient on gas.

That has left biomass as an option, as well as simply closing up shop. Biomass has been on the table for quite some time, and is still being seriously considered. Every so often we check in to see if any decisions have been made, so I reached out to PGE’s Steve Corsen to find out the latest.

I wasn’t surprised to hear the utility is still considering its investigation into biomass preliminary, but Corsen said the utility expects to complete a cofiring test burn—mixing torrefied biomass and coal—later this year. Soon.

“That will give us information on how well torrefied biomass performs with the Boardman Generating Station’s conveyors, pulverizers, burners, etc.,” he said. “Basically, it’ll show us whether our general hypothesis is correct: That torrefied biomass can be expected to perform pretty much the way coal does now, with minimal modifications to the existing equipment.”

PGE is also still in the process of gathering information that will help it inform its economic analysis regarding the potential cost and supply availability of suitable fuel, according to Corsen. “Once the cofiring test burn is complete, we’ll make a decision on whether to proceed with a test burn next year using 100 percent torrefied biomass.”

I’ve inquired as to whether they can share who the supplier of the torrefied biomass will be—have not yet heard, but I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.

Looking forward to hearing from PGE on how the test burns go and sharing what I hear.