From a distance, the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill looks like any other large forest manufacturing operation.
But the rows and rows of neatly stacked boards — dried, graded, wrapped and bound for markets to the east — are not the only significant product created at the east-Aberdeen facility. The byproducts are nearly as important, especially with lumber sales still struggling in the economic recession.
What sets the mill apart is an 18-megawatt power plant and transmission lines that carry power out to consumers rather than drawing it in for consumption.
The mill, which has been in operation since 2003, now represents one of the most significant suppliers of renewable energy to the Grays Harbor PUD.
"Sierra Pacific Industries is proud to partner with the PUD to provide green energy for our local community," the company said in a statement about a new 12-year deal that will supply the PUD with a minimum of 5 megawatts of power from the sawmill. "Utilizing byproducts such as the sawdust, bark, and trimmings from our manufacturing process, we create electricity."
The privately held company has a long history of turning wood waste into biomass fuel for its steam-powered turbines. Sierra Pacific not only supplies power to run the sawmill but creates excess electricity to sell on the regional power market. Because of recent developments in that market, the PUD now is a ready customer, since it must comply with state requirements to procure a certain percentage of power generated from renewable resources, such as biomass fuel from wood or wind energy.
"The biomass power industry provides an environmentally responsible means to dispose of millions of tons of woody waste annually, turning what was once considered only waste material into valuable electricity," according to the company statement.
"Our hope is that over time, SPI can increase the amount of green energy we provide to the local community," said Sheri Nelson, Sierra Pacific community relations manager. "SPI hopes to continue and broaden our commitment in providing green energy for Grays Harbor County for many years to come."
Rick Lovely, PUD general manager, said the new pact with Sierra Pacific represents a "symbiosis" in local power production and transmission.
"It's totally predictable and the capacity is totally available," said Lovely. "It provides us with a source that gives us some flexibility."
It also will eventually supply enough green-energy power to meet requirements of Initiative-937, the so-called energy independence act, over the 12 years of a new contract signed with the district.
Under the act, passed by state voters in 2006, utilities with more than 25,000 customers must supply a percentage of their energy from renewable resources and meet requirements for conservation. By 2012, 3 percent of a utility's energy load must come from eligible renewable resources, such as biomass, wind or solar. By 2020, that requirement goes up to 15 percent of total load.
While the deal calls for 5 megawatts initially, at a cost of $56.33 a megawatt, the PUD eventually plans to purchase up to 15 megawatts of generating capacity in the future, or enough power to supply more than 15,000 homes.
It also cuts the PUD's capital costs to acquire green power elsewhere, such as what Lovely said is the estimated $77 million it ultimately would have cost the district for the proposed Radar Ridge wind energy project currently under environmental review in Pacific County.
The deal with Sierra Pacific made even more sense when the PUD recently decided to end its 49 percent share in Radar Ridge and seek a more economical option to acquire renewable power resources. It also came at a time when Sierra Pacific was looking for a new customer for its electricity.
"Obviously, the situation for us has changed since 2003 when it was built," Lovely said.
PUD Commissioner Truman Seely on Monday was asked why the PUD chose to invest in searching for other alternatives for renewable resources when Sierra Pacific had its co-generation plant operating well before the I-937 mandate.
"When Sierra Pacific started, we didn't need it," he said of the power produced at the mill. "And Sierra Pacific had another customer."
Nelson confirmed the company had private contracts to sell the energy when it first began biomass generation, but a change in the market recently left Sierra Pacific with excess power to sell. "Timing is everything," Nelson said.
The power plant consumes about 80,000 pounds of waste an hour. The wood byproducts are carried by conveyor belts into the belly of a co-generation plant that burns the fuel to heat water to make steam; the steam then turns turbines with generators that create the electricity. Some of the steam then is re-circulated to help dry lumber in the sawmill's large kiln area and the water is reclaimed to run back through the process again and again.
Much of the operation is automated, but workers must constantly monitor the type of fuel, the air dampers, and the fires burning inside the boilers to make sure the mix results in a constant and steady heat.
"It's a well-run facility," Lovely said.
Overall, Sierra Pacific runs eight co-generation plants at its plants in California and Washington, producing a total of more than 150 megawatts of electrical power, or enough for 150,000 homes, all from wood waste. Whatever electricity isn't used by plant operations is then sold to local public utilities like Grays Harbor PUD or to private energy service providers, "helping to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels."
"We utilize 100 percent of every log that comes in," Nelson said.
Information from: The Daily World, http://www.thedailyworld.com