SOU Burns Natural

This is a rewritten version of this article. The Siskiyou apologizes for all fact errors previously written in this article. 

After 15 months of deliberation, the Finance Committee of Southern Oregon University’s Board of Trustees voted Thursday to move forward with a plan for natural gas boilers to replace the aging boilers that they have now. At a later date, should the plan continue, there will be a request for funding to finance any capitol expenditures.

At one point the University considered converting to a new form of energy for the boilers called “Biomass”. Biomass is burning wood and forest debris, which on one hand requires no drilling and zero waste as it uses debris already left from logging operations but on the other hand, combustion results in the release of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter-all factors which have to be mitigated.

Picture from the Mail Tribune
Picture from the Mail Tribune

Behind SOU’s campus there is a warehouse that puffs steam when the temperatures drop. Some have wondered if that is pollution from the boilers but it is merely warmer steam and cooler air mixing. Most large universities will use their own fuel because, simply, it’s cheaper.  According to Facilities Manager Drew Gilliland, boilers are known to age and fail, necessitating consistent repairs in order to keep things running smoothly.  In the past five years, two boilers at SOU have broken down due to age.

Even though natural gas production in the U.S. and Canada has been booming, prices continue to rise to meet market demand.  The question now becomes: Is it better to burn biomass energy versus natural gas?  The Natural Resources Defense Council claims there are pros and cons when considering biomass from a carbon emissions standpoint.  Logging whole trees specifically to burn can lead to carbon emissions in the short term.  On the contrary, using the timber from previous logging operations, that would otherwise decay, is much better for carbon emissions.

In a letter to the editor in the Daily Tidings, Bob Palzer and Paul Fouch claim that biomass would be a poor choice for the University.  In response to natural gas being cheaper, they claim “the fact that natural gas prices have been dropping for several years and are lower than their average price for the past 15 years. We contend the prices for both fuels will vary and cannot accurately be predicted over the long term by anyone.”  They also claim that “Biomass has a lower energy density than fossil fuels, and is inefficient because it’s generally high moisture content requires that energy be expended to evaporate water before useful energy can be obtained.”  This generally means, according to them, that burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide than coal would by one hundred and fifty percent.

Others disagree strongly saying burning wood waste in an efficient manner is better for the planet, creates no need for mining, fracking or other forms of environmental interference.

With some in the community protesting the biomass option, SOU decided at this juncture to pursue the gas option. SOU has a goal of reaching “Carbon neutrality” by the year 2050 and despite the biomass project moving the university closer to this direction other factors had to be considered such as the expense of conversion and community sentiment.   The legislature is expected to approve the plan in 2017 to replace the boilers that burn natural gas.