Columbia Biogas? In a word: unsustainable

Daryl Maas is the CEO of Farm Power Tillamook LLC.

Daryl Maas is the CEO of Farm Power Tillamook LLC. Photo courtesy of Northwest Business Monthly.

Portland is a friend to clean energy, and I applaud the desire to find ways to convert the city’s waste into fuel, but there are serious questions that should be raised about the Columbia Biogas project.

My company, Farm Power Northwest, is a family and community-based 2007 startup that builds and operates on-farm anaerobic digester facilities in the Pacific Northwest. We create biogas and fertilizer from millions of gallons of organic waste every year using anaerobic digestion. Our first of two Oregon facilities, Farm Power Tillamook, will begin recycling loads of Portland’s organic wastes this month. We, and others like us in the Oregon renewable industry, are already providing the clean energy, organic fertilizer, and low-cost organic waste disposal options that Columbia Biogas hopes to someday create making use of city subsidies.

Columbia Biogas is a very expensive facility. According to published reports, Columbia Biogas’ current budget is $55 million for a plant that can generate up to 5 megawatts of energy — or roughly $11 million for every megawatt of installed capacity. My company’s facilities, and similar digesters, cost around $5 million for every installed megawatt of power — less half the cost. A wind turbine costs about $2 million for every megawatt, making electrical capacity from Columbia Biogas roughly five times more expensive than wind power.

Columbia Biogas will also face operational challenges due to its urban location. Most energy and waste facilities are in rural areas for good reason. Unlike an on-farm digester, which can apply processed effluents to nearby croplands as fertilizer, every gallon of waste that enters the Columbia Biogas facility will later have to be trucked to some distant user —creating additional carbon emissions— or processed prior to discharge. The operational complexity and costs of such a model are very difficult — especially for an untried technology. No public financial projections for Columbia Biogas have been made available, but it is hard to see how even with its central location the facility could afford to reduce waste disposal costs for Portland businesses.

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