By John Reynolds, FAIA
In this summer heat, imagine that you are
back in cool, wet February. Imagine the
town of Cave Junction, Ore., population
1,400, 60 miles over the thickly forested Coast
Range from the Pacific. The family-owned
Rough and Ready Lumber Co. is by far the
largest employer in town, but it’s small by timber industry standards. Too small, many said, to
generate renewable electricity.
Several years ago, Rough and Ready needed to replace the 30-year-old wood-fired boiler that provides steam for kiln drying their
lumber. The mill owners were aware of an
array of state and federal incentives for
investments in renewable energy generation. They resolved to pursue a $6 million
co-generation plant with a much more efficient boiler producing high-quality steam to
run a turbine, generating 1.2 megawatts of
electricity, seven days a week, 24 hours a
day. Exiting the turbine, the steam is available to provide twice the kiln drying capacity of the old boiler. A new electrostatic precipitator, constituting 10 percent of the total
plant cost, removes most of the particulates
from the boiler’s stack.
Half the wood waste burned to run the
boiler comes from sawmill trimmings. The
other half is from forest slash, the woody
debris left behind after logging, and from
the ground-growth thinning that reduces
the risk of forest fires in southern Oregon’s
hot dry summers. Before installation of the
new equipment, smoke and haze from the
boiler was a continual air-quality issue for
this otherwise lovely valley. Despite producing double the steam, the new boiler emits
85 percent fewer particulates.
While supporting biomass electricity production, some ASES members are leery of
the “forest trimmings” aspect. Thanks to
misleading slogans like “Clear Skies” and
“Clean Coal,” we’re suspicious of an initiative labeled “Healthy Forests.” But half of
this plant’s fuel comes from its own operations, and it offers pollution-controlled slash
burning, so this is a positive example of
renewable energy generation.
Government programs now offer more
money (loans, tax credits, grants) to help
companies generate renewable electricity.
In this case, help came from the Oregon
Department of Energy as a business energy tax credit. An Oregon pollution control
tax credit was added,
and the federal production tax credit.
The U.S. Department
of Agriculture Rural
John Reynolds, and the U.S. Forest
Service added grants.
The Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit entity that invests funds from utilities in energy
efficiency and renewable energy generation,
provided $1.7 million in above-market costs
to support the electricity production using
biomass. As president of the Energy Trust
board, I was privileged to attend the opening
celebration for the new boiler.
The celebration, held on a rare clear February day, was festive despite the worst lumber market in decades. We gathered in a large
shed with one open side facing the boiler and
precipitator. The constant roar of the precipitator almost overcame the speaker system, but the 80 or so folks in attendance,
many clad in boots and plaid shirts, were all
smiles. It was gratifying to look out and see
nary a wisp of pollution from the boiler stack,
and to know that this new boiler and precipitator, over the life of the plant, will achieve
carbon dioxide emission reductions equivalent to 2,700 acres of trees.
Two weeks later, in the Nevada desert
near Boulder Dam, about 500 people attended the opening ceremony for Nevada Solar
One, a 64-megawatt concentrating solar
power (CSP) plant. At peak, Solar One produces more than 50 times as much power as
the Rough and Ready biomass boiler, and it
cost 40 times as much to build. It produces
renewable power seven sunny days a week,
but not for 24 hours. Its output in large part
will meet daytime air conditioning loads in
nearby Las Vegas. The solar thermal technology produces high temperatures, powering a standard steam turbine. For decades it
will produce power from the sun, releasing
no carbon into the atmosphere and no
byproduct but water vapor.
That water vapor is one drawback. The
This new boiler and
precipitator, over the
life of the plant, will
achieve carbon dioxide
equivalent to 2,700
acres of trees.
water district serving Las Vegas uses more
megawatts than this plant’s capacity; water
conservation lags in this desert city; and
nearby Lake Mead may soon disappear. For
each megawatt-hour produced, this plant
uses perhaps a third more water than a coal-powered plant, operating at a lower temperature and needing water for washing mirrors. Air-cooling would greatly reduce water
use, but would cost a little more.
This opening celebration, on a windy and
overcast day, was held in a large tent. There
was total silence from power production, but
the white vinyl roof and sides flapped loudly in a 15-mph wind. Television monitors
spread throughout the tent gave us all a clear
view of the speakers’ faces. A near-transpar-ent plastic tent wall provided a murky view
of the concentrating reflectors just outside.
This first CSP plant of its kind in 16 years
cost more than $250 million, took 16
months to construct and employed more
than 800 workers on site at one time. Not
long ago the U.S. Department of Energy
considered eliminating the budget for concentrating solar power. The American Solar
Energy Society intervened, the program was
continued, and now we have the prospect of
nearly 7,000 gigawatts of CSP in our Southwest’s future, as described in the ASES policy paper Tackling Climate Change.
CSP and biomass are but two of the
renewable energy sources that contribute
substantially to local economies while reducing the threat of global warming. Our celebrations are just getting started. ●
John Reynolds, FAIA, is chair of the American Solar Energy Society board. Contact him at