The utility and Columbia Energy Partners want to use emissions to grow algae for fuel production

Friday, September 26, 2008GAIL KINSEY HILL

The Oregonian Staff

In the energy equivalent of turning a pig’s ear into a silk purse — and a very green one, at that — Portland General Electric is testing how to use pollutants from its Boardman coal plant to grow algae for biofuel production.

PGE and renewable energy developer Columbia Energy Partners announced Thursday that they had begun a pilot project for the algae venture at the utility’s Boardman facility in Morrow County.

The experiment siphons off some of the coal plant’s CO2 emissions and feeds them to six 12-foot-long tubs of algae sitting on a nearby flatbed truck.

During photo synthesis, the algae gobble up the CO2 and release oxygen into the air. Oil is squeezed out of the mature algae and used to produce a clean-burning biodiesel.

The residue — a starchy goo — is turned into ethanol, an alternative to gasoline, and livestock feed.

“This is an opportunity to make a real meaningful difference,” said Steve Corson, a PGE spokesman.

He emphasized, however, that the pilot project is “tiny” and that more tests must be conducted before determining whether a full-blown production facility is feasible.

The 600-megawatt Boardman facility, about 150 miles east of Portland, is Oregon’s only coal plant. It generates about one-fifth of PGE’s power and is the state’s largest stationary source of CO2, a major contributor to climate change.

The plant has come under fire not only for its CO2 emissions, but also for haze-causing pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. A study released early this year concluded that the plant is responsible for more than half the haze in the eastern Columbia River Gorge at certain times in the winter.

Jon Norling, vice president of Columbia Energy, said he approached PGE more than two years ago about using Boardman’s CO2 emissions to grow algae. Norling owns Portland Biodiesel and said he was quick to recognize algae as a potentially valuable biodiesel feedstock.

Algae’s attraction to CO2 is a natural, Norling said. “It needs it,” he said. “It really likes it.”

The pilot project won’t make much of a dent in Boardman’s CO2 emissions, which total about 5 million tons a year. But, a full-scale plant — at least 21/2 years away — could use up to 60 percent of the emissions during daylight hours and produce 20 million gallons of biodiesel annually, Norling said.

The linkup between PGE and Columbia Energy involves just the experimental project, although it could extend into a longer-term union.

Algae are considered a promising feedstock for biofuel production but remains in its developmental stages. No commercial plants are operating in the United States.

At this point, soybeans are the most popular crop used to make biodiesel. An acre of soybeans can produce about 50 gallons of biodiesel, PGE’s Corson said. A one-acre algae pond can produce 800 gallons — or much more according to some studies.

2 Responses

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