Warm Springs biomass-generated energy project ready for next step

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WASHINGTON - A woody biomass power generation project of the Warm Springs Tribe is under way after years of planning, as pledged to and explained by attorney James D. Noteboom of Karnopp Petersen LLP in Bend, Ore., at a Law Seminars International tribal energy conference in Washington a year ago, in July 2007.

Jim Manion, general manager of Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises, recently reconfirmed the content of the PowerPoint presentation, the product of probably 20 hands, and updated the progress of the project itself. The main change from 2007 is in the financing, he said, the tribe having abandoned a production tax credit approach in favor of a new market tax credit, available to producers in economically disadvantaged areas.

The tribe hopes to partner with a community development enterprise, in a more complex arrangement that will channel a tax credit to the CDE instead of to the tribe, which typically doesn't need it as tribal government profits are untaxed anyway.

''We are under way to secure financing to get this done,'' Manion said, adding that the financing should be in place by the end of September, with an 18-month window after that to construct the woody biomass electrical generation facility.

An agreement is already in place with an undisclosed independently operated utility to purchase the tribe's biomass power, he said. ''It brings in a reliable baseload allocation of energy to the utility's needs,'' he said, a reference to the potential of biomass for overcoming the ''intermittency'' of the wind as it blows and the sun as it shines: biomass typically delivers uninterrupted power 330 to 350 days of the year, with up to only two weeks of scheduled downtime for maintenance.

The tribe itself will build a transmission line to transport biomass-generated energy to the regional transmission grid, Manion said, overcoming another critical hurdle.

And now, some definitions and fine points drawn from the 2007 presentation. Woody biomass, often thought of as waste wood, is actually all the vegetative materials that grow in forests, woodlands or range lands. When used to fuel renewable power generation, woody biomass is usually generated by the kind of aggressive forest management regimes that are considered more and more necessary in Oregon, where five forest fires have crossed Warm Springs borders since 1996 - for instance, trees of too small diameter for the logging market may be culled from a forest to restore healthy,

large-diameter timber stands. Other forest restoration activities, as well as hazardous-fuel reduction treatments at federal sites on and near the reservation, produce additional woody biomass.

Woody biomass can be difficult and costly to transport without the proper infrastructure, according to Noteboom, but Warm Springs Forest Products Industries already operates a biomass power generation facility near tribal forests, so more biomass-generated steam for power and lumber drying is simply an expansion of existing business practice.

Woody biomass is a renewable energy source, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to the energy portfolios of power utilities. Unlike renewable energy from wind and solar resources, it provides steady production. Under the contained combustion of woody biomass production processes, waste wood and forest vegetation generally emit far less carbon than the conventional open burning or wildfires, resulting in a net reduction of greenhouse gasses.

By improving forest health, woody biomass projects also improve hydropower production, as intact forest ecosystems deliver more timely, more regular, and less sedimented snowmelt runoff - vital considerations for sustained hydropower generation.

Overall, Manion said, the national climate looks good for renewable fuels, as spiraling gasoline prices and growing awareness of humankind's ''carbon footprint'' force a focus on alternatives to fossil fuels. The Warm Springs biomass initiative hopes to gain traction in that climate, and also expects to benefit from climate change legislation that may come across from Congress sooner than later, he added.