By year's end, Portland General Electric will fire up its 550-megawatt power plant in Boardman for a daylong test burn, feeding 8,000 tons of pulverized, roasted wood into its boilers instead of the usual diet of coal.
The exercise is meant to gauge whether the aging fossil fuel plant could reliably generate electricity using renewable feedstock such as "torrefied" wood after its scheduled closure in 2020. If it works — technically, economically and environmentally — Oregon's only coal-fired power plant could one day become the country's largest biomass power plant.
It's an uncertain, embryonic effort, but some believe the payoff could be substantial. The conversion of Boardman and other coal plants could extend the life of existing equipment, benefiting ratepayers, while helping utilities comply with state renewable power mandates. It could cut pollution from power plants and logging operations. And it could boost forest restoration efforts, particularly in overstocked national forests east of the Cascades, by creating a viable market for the small trees, tree tops and limbs left over from thinning and logging projects.
"There are job creation opportunities. We can take more material out of the woods. It's a big winner — if it works," said Bruce Daucsavage, president of Prineville-based Ochoco Lumber Co., which operates the only remaining sawmill in Grant County.