February 29, 2016

Revised Oregon Energy Bill Includes Biomass Provision

Biomass is politically popular in rural areas of the state and communities with timber mills where wood waste can be used as fuel.

The latest version of an Oregon bill to double the state’s renewable energy mandate would also expand incentives to build and operate power plants that burn wood.

Lawmakers added a provision on biomass to the bill Thursday night, in an effort to gain support of state Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, who was previously lukewarm on the legislation.

Biomass is politically popular in rural areas of the state and communities with timber mills where wood waste can be used as fuel. At the same time, some environmentalists have questioned whether biomass should qualify as renewable energy, and researchers have found burning wood can release more carbon than coal.

The renewable energy bill moving through the Oregon Legislature would require PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to stop using coal power to serve their Oregon customers. It would also require the utilities use sources such as solar and wind to serve 50 percent of their customers’ energy demand by 2040. The House passed the bill last week.

“For those of us that have been looking for a path forward for biomass viability as a power source, this is the most substantial piece of legislation we’ve had,” Edwards said during a hearing on the bill at the House Committee on Rules Thursday night. Edwards said biomass incentives would help create or keep jobs in Oregon, given that even a southern Oregon sawmill owner had recently told Edwards he planned to shut down a biomass plant because it would be cheaper to use natural gas.

The House Committee on Rules ultimately voted on Thursday to insert the latest version of the renewable energy bill, including the biomass provision, into another piece of legislation and send that bill to the House for a floor vote. They did so in order to revive the bill after it stalled in the face of Republican opposition in the Senate.

Republicans in the Senate, who oppose the bill, are drafting a minority report. There is no deadline to produce the report, so the move could prevent the measure from coming to a vote before the end of the session.

Many House Republicans also oppose the bill and decided to employ the same tactic as their Senate colleagues. It will not buy much of a delay, however: under House rules, the minority report must be submitted by 5 p.m. Friday. That means the House could vote on the bill by the middle of next week, and the Senate could hold a final vote on the bill soon afterward. Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said on Thursday there are enough votes for the bill to pass the Senate.

The latest version of the bill requires PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to get at least 8 percent of their total electrical capacity by 2025 from either small power projects under 20 megawatts or biomass plants. There is no cap on the size of the biomass power plants, although Edwards said he plans to introduce legislation to add a 20 megawatt limit during the next legislative session.

The bill would also allow new and recently constructed biomass plants to generate renewable energy certificates the utilities can use to meet the renewable energy mandate. Utilities can already use renewable energy certificates the state awards to pre-1995 biomass plants to meet the existing state renewable energy mandate, although under current law utilities cannot use those certificates until 2026. The bill makes the same certificate change for pre-1995 plants that generate power by burning garbage.

The bill in the Legislature would eliminate the waiting period so the certificates could be used immediately. “That provision has made them essentially worthless until that date,” Edwards wrote in an email Friday.

Although many people consider biomass to be a renewable resource, there are questions about whether it can help Oregon meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, the nonprofit news outlet InvestigateWest examined whether biomass energy produces more pollution than coal and cited research that “wood and wood wastes had a greenhouse emission factor roughly 20 per cent higher than coal.”

Researchers have also questioned how the carbon reduction from biomass is calculated.

“Most calculations claiming that bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions do not include the carbon dioxide released when biomass is burned,” according to a report from the World Research Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank.

“In effect, these analyses ‘double count’ plant growth and thus ‘double count’ carbon, leading to overly optimistic estimates of emissions reductions,” the group wrote.

Renewable Northwest, a group that advocates for renewable energy, is part of a coalition of groups that negotiated the bill ahead of the legislative session. Cliff W. Gilmore, director of communications for the group, said the organization was still analyzing the biomass provision added to the bill Thursday and could not comment on the impact Friday. Nonetheless, Gilmore said “we’re confident that it’s the right thing to move through ... We’re confident the core content of this thing is in the interest of the state and really the region.”

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