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Is Biomass Cleaner?

July 2, 2012 - Those poor, poor people in Washington, D.C. who might not have their power restored until this coming weekend.  If you've never been in Washington in July, take my word for it: it gives the word "awful" new meaning.  The humidity, combined with the heat, makes the weather fit for neither man nor beast.  Here in Ohio, we were part of that original group of 4 million people without electricity, but we got ours back yesterday.  A little bit of food needed to be thrown out.  We were uncomfortably warm for awhile.  It was too hot to go out for a walk, and reading can hold your attention for just so long.  The water worked, and the basement was nice and cool, so we didn't lose any sleep.  Last night, another severe storm moved through, this time with quarter-sized hail.  My potato plants got beaten down, but I think they're ok.  Corn farmers may actually have welcomed these last two storms, assuming the wind and hail didn't finish off their crop.

Do my neighbors understand that this is what is meant by the words "global warming" and "climate change?"  That the phenomena they're witnessing make hotter weather and its various outcomes no longer a matter of "some day," but rather an issue to be dealt with right now?  That it will only get worse?  We ALL share in the responsibility for this happening, and are all responsible for electing representatives this November who will confront global warming with careful consideration, and effective legislation.  Choices, which at one time were limited, have been reduced to one, and only one.  We're like someone who has been backed into a corner.  The only way out is surprising our opponent by crawling between his legs.  Better get on with it, before even that choice no longer exists.

And don't be amazed to find out there's someone ahead of you, making that mad dash.  Who's first in line?  The state of Oregon, that's who.  Oregonians have decided they will no longer produce electricity by burning coal.  You'll find few, if any, environmentalists who will argue with the wisdom of that choice.  The free-thinking folks of this far-western state haven't stopped there, however.  Their electric company, which goes by the name of Portland General Electric (PGE), has decided to try biomass.  In fact, they're going to grow their own!  A Greek weed, of all things, that goes by the name of Giant Cane.  Given the right growing conditions, this plant can grow as tall as 20 feet in a season.  Aside from the fact that it might want to spread - no final verdict on that yet - it can be charred and burned like coal.

Charring means to burn something slowly, allowing the burned substance to retain much of its carbon.  Charred plants can be piled outdoors, just like coal can, because charring makes them water resistant.  In a charred condition, weedy plants will no longer spread.

PGE has hired three local farmers to grow the cane on 85 acres located near the town of Boardman, Ore.  Should they be successful, the plant in Boardman might lead biomass electric production nationally one day.  All biomass plants face a major problem, so far, and that is the inability to mix more than 10 percent biomass in with coal.  Attempting to burn more gums up the works.  Stan Rosinski, manager of the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute, says that the newest roasting machines have effectively eliminated the problem.  It would be a tremendous step forward if it turns out he's right.

This achievement would play a leading role in moving the country toward a future where combined renewable sources of energy could legitimately take the place of conventional fossil fuels.  Owners of coal-burning power plants throughout the United States view the Giant Cane experiment with great interest.  The new air quality standards that the EPA has introduced mean cleaner burning fuels will allow them to stay in business.  Is biomass cleaner?  The EPA will exempt biomass from the new standards for three years, in order for this all-important question to be answered.  They have asked a panel of scientists to compile the evidence, pro and con, and report to the agency on the difference between burning whole trees, agricultural waste, and fast-growing plants like Giant Cane.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

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