A high-tech boiler that turns waste wood into electricity and heat could be a cost-effective investment for Central Washington University, according to a study released last week.
It’s a concept that’s been under discussion for years, but until now, a design and cost analysis had not been done.
The results are very encouraging, said Jim Armstrong, CEO of the Kittitas Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the research.
“The bottom line is usually these facilities just don’t pencil (out), but in this case, because CWU has the infrastructure to use the waste heat in the cold months to heat the campus, it works,” Armstrong said. “They wouldn’t have to buy natural gas, which saves money.”
The study, conducted by Portland-based Beck Carlson Biomass Energy Consultants, was financed by a $50,000 grant from a state Department of Commerce program supporting forest products development.
The university already heats the campus with steam produced by the natural gas-powered boilers. Currently, the campus burns almost $1 million worth of natural gas a year, according to the study.
The proposed wood-powered system would cost between $30 million to $35 million, including an off-campus site for storing and chipping the wood, the new boiler, scrubbers to reduce air pollution, and a new structure to house the equipment.
Cost of building a wood-burning boiler could be, in part, offset by carbon credits from the state, because it would move from the university away from burning natural gas to waste wood, which is considered carbon-neutral. Heat from burning the wood would create steam to spin turbines to create electricity, and the excess steam would be used to heat the campus.
CWU has a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, but building this facility would allow it to achieve that goal by 2020, said David Bowen, the director of economic development for the Kittitas Chamber. The existing natural gas boiler is due for replacement.
The motivation behind the proposal is to create a use for unmarketable wood culled from forest-thinning operations to reduce wildfire risk. If there was a market for that wood, land managers could afford to do more thinning.
The study found that there was far more wood available within a 70-mile radius of Ellensburg than the proposed plant could ever need, Bowen said.
Burning the wood in a boiler with scrubbers to cut the smoke would be far cleaner than having that wood burn in a forest fire or in a logger’s slash pile, said Chuck Hersey, a forest health specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Creating the demand for the waste wood would create jobs and reduce wildfire risks in the area, Bowen said.
The next step is for the university to decide if it wants to pursue the project, he said. Further grant money could cover the cost of engineers designing the system’s details, and Bowen estimates that it could be built by 2019, if the state opts in.
“It’s the most exciting potential project for wood energy in Central Washington,” Hersey said. “If we are going to make an investment, as a state for a new boiler on campus, let’s make it something that benefits our forests’ health as well.”
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