- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Most have heard of Idaho National Laboratory’s nuclear research prowess, or its growing cybersecurity expertise.

But the lab’s biomass energy research program has largely flown under the radar, much like the renewable energy source itself, reported the Post Register (https://bit.ly/28QSP7f). A warehouse on INL’s Idaho Falls campus is home to all kinds of machinery used for grinding, chopping, compressing and measuring biomass fuels, from corn stover to woody waste.

The goal of the Biomass User Facility is to figure out how the country’s most abundant waste products - from farms, forests or even cities - can efficiently be converted into energy. Power plants that run on these types of fuels already dot much of Idaho and the U.S., and contribute roughly two percent to the country’s overall electricity generation. But Michael Clark, INL’s biomass facility manager, sees potential for far more.

“One of the reasons biomass is so attractive is that it comes back every year - it is truly a renewable form of energy,” he said on a recent tour of the facility.

Yet biomass has been overshadowed by other renewables such as wind and solar, which are often heavily subsidized. In California, a state rich with agricultural waste, biomass plants are starting to fold. Idaho experts say they are hopeful about the future of biomass generation here, however no big new projects have come online in several years and the state’s biggest utility, Idaho Power, does not have any new projects in the pipeline.

There is plenty of fuel, especially in an agricultural state such as Idaho, Clark said. He used the example of a corn plant, where the cob makes up roughly 5 percent and the rest often gets plowed back into the soil. Much of that plant’s “residue” can go to a biomass energy facility, he said.

In one recent project, INL researchers studied how effective western juniper trees would be as a biofuel. The trees are plentiful in southwest Idaho, and officials hope to remove many of them to restore sage grouse habitat. Another project is looking at the possibility of turning certain types of municipal trash into energy.

One of the largest hurdles for biomass energy is cost, Clark said. Collecting the waste, processing it into pellets or other condensed fuel forms, and then burning it can be a long, expensive process. Making the process more efficient is a focus for INL researchers, he said.

“The whole point is to make money off the existing biomass cycle,” Clark said.

In 2014, biomass made up 4.3 percent of Idaho’s electricity production, according to Idaho’s Office of Energy Resources. Idaho Power buys electricity from 10 biomass projects, spokesman Brad Bowlin said. In northern Idaho, Avista Utilities also relies on some biomass projects.

Idaho Power’s portfolio includes five “dairy digester” projects, which use manure as a fuel source. The utility also has three projects that rely on gas from landfills to spin a turbine. Another project burns wood waste, and another collects gases from a wastewater facility to generate electricity.

Idaho Power hasn’t added a new biomass project for several years, Bowlin said. Part of the problem, he said, is the projects’ higher costs compared to solar farms or natural gas plants.

Ken Miller, energy program director for the Snake River Alliance, said Idaho is intuitively a good place for biomass energy development. It has plentiful agricultural and logging waste that can be turned into electrons instead of being buried at the landfill. Biomass could also be a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, he said.

“There should be a lot of potential,” he said.

Yet there are significant concerns about biomass from an environmental perspective: Burning trees and plants still releases pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, though far less than coal.

Biomass energy can in theory be carbon dioxide neutral - considering trees and plants absorb the greenhouse gas as they grow, then release it when they burn - but that tradeoff might not always work out so cleanly, experts say. So there is some disagreement about whether biomass energy can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Finding enough fuel to operate a biomass plant for multiple years has been another challenge for some prospective Idaho biomass developers in recent years, said John Chatburn, administrator of Idaho’s Office of Energy Resources.

“(Developers) couldn’t get the assurances from the Forest Service that they could be guaranteed a 10-year supply of biomass, which is what they said they needed to get financing,” Chatburn said. “They couldn’t get those assurances, and with that and other issues, none of biomass plants not associated with lumber mills came to fruition.”

Still, Chatburn said there likely a future for biomass energy production in Idaho. He is encouraged by the research occurring at INL and several universities.

“In the state of Idaho, whether it’s our office or the Legislature or any of the agencies, in general people are supportive of biomass,” Chatburn said. “I think once some of the research that’s being done is completed, and it proves out the systems, that you’ll see a lot more of it.”

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Information from: Post Register, https://www.postregister.com

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