Southern Oregon University's proposal to replace natural gas-fired boilers with a wood-burning unit has ignited a backlash among some residents and others who claim the move would increase air pollution and truck traffic through Ashland. We think the critics are misinformed and their criticism misplaced.
SOU relies on inefficient, 50-year-old gas-fired boilers to create steam that is used to heat campus buildings. The boilers could be replaced with new, more efficient natural gas-fired boilers. But that would continue the university's reliance on fossil fuels and would not contribute to SOU's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
A grant-funded study by the university determined that replacing two of the school's four gas-fired boilers with a wood-fired cogeneration facility not only would reduce its consumption of natural gas but would generate enough electricity to offset SOU's annual usage.
Wood fuel is readily available from logging slash and non-merchantable timber removed from nearby lands through forest restoration projects, mill residue and urban wood waste. Much of this material is now burned in open piles, emitting plumes of smoke easily visible above the mountains surrounding Ashland and the Rogue Valley.
Burning the same wood in a high-efficiency cogeneration plant would emit far less particulate pollution than open burning or residential woodstoves. For example, the Biomass 1 plant in White City produces one particle for every 500 particles produced from slash burning. In other words, the biomass plant would reduce the amount of particulate pollution in the valley, not increase it. SOU is not exempt from the strict air-quality rules imposed in Southern Oregon. A wood-fired plant would have to comply with those rules.
Critics also have raised the specter of giant, exhaust-belching trucks hauling wood waste through Ashland. According to the university, the trucks would enter the city westbound on Ashland Street — a major, multi-lane arterial — make a short turn to the right on Siskyou Boulevard and then a short trip north on Wightman to the steam plant. That's a completely appropriate truck route with the least possible impact on Ashland's livability. After all, large trucks already use that route to deliver to major supermarkets and other businesses along Ashland Street.
It's also worth noting that a wood-fired plant could be less expensive to install than new gas-fired boilers because of federal and state grants.
If reducing SOU's reliance on fossil fuels is a worthwhile goal — and we suspect critics of this proposal would agree that it is — and helping remove overgrowth from local forests and burn logging slash more cleanly also benefits the environment and air quality, it's difficult to see why the university's proposal has generated such opposition.