The Boardman Power Plant may have a new source of fuel to replace coal and keep it operating.

Giant cane has entered the picture being proposed by Portland General Electric (PGE) for a test. County commissioners have the proposal under consideration with PGE hoping for an answer within a couple of weeks.

The worry is that it takes a lot of water to grow giant cane and that it has the potential to spread as a invasive weed from the fields where it would be grown.

Giant cane (Arundo donax) is a fast-growing perennial woody grass. It can reach 20 feet in a growing season. The plant can use as much as 36 inches of water during a season, but can be grown on marginal farm lands.

After torrefaction, or charring, giant cane looks and behaves like coal, but it’s more energy-dense. Coal’s energy density, or BTU (British thermal unit), is 8,400; torrefied giant cane’s is 10,000. Giant cane also is low in sulfur and mercury.

The cost of generating electricity from giant cane will likely not be as cheap as coal. But it will also not come with the pollution issues that have lead to a PGE request to close the Boardman plant by 2020. 

Some environmental groups want it closed even sooner. Meanwhile, employees of the plant and local civic leaders worry about the future of their jobs and the economic impact closure would have on Morrow and Umatilla counties.

PGE has asked county leaders to allow it to contract with local growers to produce 250 to 350 acres of the giant cane during the next two years to produce enough biomass product to conduct a test burn in 2012. This would allow the assumptions behind this potential fuel to be confirmed.

If successful, local production would be expanded to about 10,000 acres to grow enough giant cane to run the power plant.

This amount of production would not impact high-value crops in the area such as potatoes, but could replace some  corn or alfalfa, according to PGE director of research and development Wayne Lei.

The big benefits for our region, however, would be to keep the Boardman plant operating, reduce pollution that comes from coal and provide a new cash crop for area farmers.

PGE likes the concept and is willing to spend money on the test because it could burn the cane with its existing equipment.

The plant will not, however, produce electricity as cheaply as it does now. The cost of producing electricity, called dispatch cost, at Boardman is now between $15 and $25 per megawatt hour, much cheaper than a gas-fired plant ($25-50 per megawatt hour) or wind ($70 to $90 per megawatt hour).

The PGE tests will enable researchers to see whether the cost of converting Boardman to a biomass plant, including production, transportation and torrefaction, can be competitive with the other sources of fuel.

Water use, a concern raised by officials of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is certainly something to consider in the equation.

The potential noxious weed aspect of giant cane also must be monitored. A study in 2007 by the Oregon Department of Agriculture lead the agency to not  place it on the state’s dangerous weeds list. Oregon nurseries sell the plant as an ornamental. Concern has come from California were it did spread from its original site where giant cane had been used to stabilize river banks.

Oregon, however, is a cooler climate, reducing the threat of giant cane spreading through seeds or roots beyond its intented location. Its demand for water makes it less likely to survive in our arid soil without a source of irrigation.

A controlled test of giant cane, as requested by PGE, should be allowed to move forward. Every source of fuel to generate electricity has its drawbacks.

Giant cane, however, could be a much better fuel than coal or natural gas while reducing pollution and providing jobs in our region.

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