A handful of Morrow County growers will plant giant cane, a fast-growing woody grass that Portland General Electric hopes will replace coal at the Boardman Power Plant, as early as the end of this month.

PGE is contracting with growers — including GreenWood Resources, which manages the poplar tree farm near Boardman — to produce between 100 and 250 acres, which will then go toward a test burn at the coal-fired plant next year.

However, a host of unanswered questions about giant cane remain, including whether it is safe to grow in Oregon and whether local growers can produce enough to keep the power plant running.

At a joint panel discussion last week, the Oregon State Weed Board and the Oregon Invasive Species Council wrestled with whether to label giant cane an invasive species.

California and other southern states consider giant cane a noxious weed because it spreads quickly and displaces native vegetation. It has no known biological predators.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture placed giant cane on a “watch list” of possible troublemakers in 2007. In its latest assessment, released last month, the ODA looked at giant cane again as a crop, not just a sparsely planted ornamental, and arrived at the same conclusion. Using a complex scoring system, the ODA determined giant cane garnered a middling score as an invasive weed. Among other reasons, giant cane has not so far spread in Oregon even though it is planted in gardens, and it does not produce seeds this far north.

PGE and Morrow County have agreed on a plan for controlling giant cane during the experimental growing phase. Giant cane can spread in wetlands and near waterways, for example, so those areas are prohibited from growing the plant.

Dave Pranger, the Morrow County weed control supervisor, has determined whether irrigated circles in the county are suitable for giant cane.

“From everything that I’ve been told ... if we stay within the guidelines of the control order, I don’t see it as being a problem,” he said.

Pranger added that, should giant cane stray from a circle, Roundup or another glyphosate herbicide will kill it.

Of possibly more concern, he said, is giant cane’s potential as a competitor for other crops in the county. If giant cane works as a fuel, PGE will need a lot of it — more than 50,000 acres a year.

That will take many irrigated circles in Morrow and Umatilla counties, circles that now produce vegetables, corn and other crops. This is turn may reduce supply for local food processors.

PGE says giant cane is not meant to compete with high-value crops such as potatoes. Rather, it could be another rotational crop, such as alfalfa. Wayne Lei, PGE’s director of research and development, said the company has no intention of harming Eastern Oregon’s economy.

“Clearly, we want to be very sensible to the needs of the local farmers out there,” he said.

Lei added that giant cane could preserve jobs at the Boardman Power Plant, which is scheduled to close in 2020, and add jobs at new torrefaction facilities. Giant cane must be torrefied, or dried, before PGE can burn it in the coal-fired plant.

The Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center also is growing giant cane this spring, and will be part of a local giant cane advisory board. Should PGE’s idea prove successful, it could turn the Boardman Power Plant into the largest biomass-fueled energy producer in the country.

Morrow County Judge Terry Tallman said he favors giving giant cane a try. But he expressed doubts as to whether local growers could produce enough. When asked whether the county would step in to protect food processors, he said no — the market should take care of itself.

“It ends up, ultimately, being a contract between PGE and the grower,” he said. “If PGE can’t meet market demands, they’ve got to go somewhere else or they’ve got to find another substance.”

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