Southern Oregon University Scraps Plans for Biomass Heating

– by John Darling, February 22, 2016, Ashland Daily Tidings

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Photo: Ashland Daily Tidings

Environmentalists are celebrating Southern Oregon University’s decision not to install biomass burners to heat the campus, but rather to go with natural gas, which it presently uses, for about a third of the cost of biomass and virtually none of the carbon and particulate pollution.

After 15 months of deliberation, the Finance Committee of SOU’s Board of Trustees voted Thursday to ask the 2017 Legislature for $2.5 million for natural gas boilers to replace the aging gas boilers that were installed in the 1970s, says Ryan Brown, SOU spokesman. The vote was unanimous.

The choice ends consideration of biomass-fed boilers, which would been built near the SOU stadium and would have meant an endless stream of wood slash trucked in from surrounding forests — an idea that drew much local protest. The gas option has no environmental impact, he adds, as it just replaces a similar system.

“SOU is doing a great job of bringing the issue of sustainability and renewable energy to the community,” says Dominick DellaSalla, chief scientist of Geos Institute in Ashland. “That needs to happen if we’re going to deal with climate change … It’s a smart move for the university and I applaud them for rejecting the proposal to make the region worse for climate and pollution.” He testified before trustees recently.

Community activist John Fisher-Smith, who campaigned against biomass, said, “I’m excited and thrilled to hear the trustees made this decision. Biomass would have added to the problem of particulate pollution.” He adds it’s a “misunderstanding” put out by the U.S. Forest Service that biomass burning is carbon neutral.

Drew Gilliland, SOU director of facilities and management, said public input against biomass “absolutely” made an impact with the Board of Trustees, in addition to the fact that “natural gas is incredibly cheaper, based on the current market, although the market is such that 10 years ago it was too high to consider.”

SOU has a goal of “carbon neutrality” by 2050 and Gilliland noted this choice for gas-fired boilers will not bring that goal closer — and the school will continue to explore other avenues, including buying carbon credits and making use of smarter (more energy-efficient) buildings and renewable, non-carbon emitting solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Trustees weighed the startup costs, said Brown, estimating natural gas at $2.5 million, versus biomass, producing only steam, at $6.5 million — and biomass co-generation, producing steam and electricity, at $7.2 million.

“Trustees decided to go with natural gas, not just for lowest installation costs, but also least impact to the campus and least interruption during construction,” says Brown. “The gas-fired plant is now behind the library. Students and staff won’t notice any change. It’s simply a matter of putting in state-of-the-art equipment and technology that’s decades newer.”

The legislature is expected to approve the capital expenditure in 2017.

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