Evergreen considers wood power

The $14 million biomass gasification plant project is not completely dead, but it won't be happening any time soon, college officials said.
The $14 million biomass gasification plant project is not completely dead, but it won't be happening any time soon, college officials said. The Olympian

OLYMPIA - The Evergreen State College wants to eliminate the use of fossil fuels to heat the campus, perhaps substituting wood waste for natural gas to create steam.

The proposal, called a biomass gasification plant, is the subject of a $200,000 study set for completion in November to determine whether the roughly $10 million project makes technical, economic and environmental sense.

It has the support of students, the faculty and administrators working on a plan to make the college carbon-neutral by 2020, which means school activities wouldn’t contribute to global warming.

The natural gas that powers the campus steam boilers equals 40 percent of the college’s carbon footprint, which is more than the fuel burned by the students, faculty and staff in their daily commutes, according to college sustainability coordinator Scott Morgan.

Despite the good environmental intentions, the project finds itself in the cross hairs of the same group that is battling a wood-waste-to-energy plant proposed in Mason County by Adage, a biopower company.

The No Biomass Burn group spearheaded by Seattle activist Duff Badgley claims that the college biomass project would emit twice as much carbon dioxide as the gas-fired plant, and 20 percent more of other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

“Natural gas isn’t good, but burning wood is worse,” said TESC senior Shawnie Whelan.

The critics’ assessment of the project is completely inaccurate, said TESC professor Rob Cole, who specializes in environmental science, math, physics and sustainability issues.

As long as the wood waste used by TESC is replenished in the forest, the net effect is that carbon released in the atmosphere is equal to the carbon stored in the trees, Cole said.

On the other hand, burning fossil fuels such as natural gas adds to the greenhouse gas burden in the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change, he said.

Other pollutants from the biomass plant will be less than the natural gas plant, college director of facilities Paul Smith said, adding that Badgley is jumping to conclusions that won’t be clear until the feasibility study is complete.

If they contribute to deforestation, biomass projects run the risk of reducing the total amount of forestland and forests available in the Pacific Northwest to sequester greenhouse gases, said Pat Rasmussen, a member of the World Temperate Rainforest Network.

The Evergreen project will advance beyond study only if it promotes sustainable forestry, said Todd Sprague, college director of marketing, communications and college relations.

“If we can’t do it well, it shouldn’t be done at all,” Sprague said. “That’s the purpose of the feasibility study.”

Badgley also claims the project supporters have made up their minds to run with the project because they are already pursuing funding sources.

“They’re bulldozing ahead – the feasibility study should be called the rubber stamp study,” he said.

Project supporters will ask the college board of trustees to submit a grant proposal to the state Department of Commerce for the 2011-13 state capital budget, Sprague confirmed.

But if the feasibility study identifies fatal flaws in the project, the budget request will be rescinded, Sprague said.

“If we don’t get in line for funding, it would delay action on the project,” he said.

Badgley said the biomass opponents are preparing to fight the project in various ways, including campus protests.

“The irony here is that nobody is yelling at us for burning fossil fuels,” Cole said. “This isn’t fact-based criticism – we’re not looking to do something stupid as we’ve been accused of.”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com