|Arundo donax in Arizona.|
|Oregon's only coal-producing power plant is in Boardman.|
PGE is proposing to replace all that coal with torrefied biomass (the plant is dried with heat until it almost turns to charcoal) from about 50,000 to 90,000 acres of Arundo. Other sources of biomass, such as torrefied wood waste, could be incorporated with the Arundo. Theoretically, the powerplant would need very little modification for this conversion. Interestingly, because of laws mandating use of renewable energy sources in Oregon, energy produced from biomass would not have to compete with fossil fuel-produced power. We were told it could be five times more expensive to produce, yet it might still be economic. Biomass would be a good complement to wind turbines, because it can provide power when the wind isn’t blowing.
Unfortunatly, Arundo is a weed. In fact, it is considered one of the worst weeds in the world. Arundo is invasive in warm climates, especially in riparian areas. Up until now, it hasn’t been invasive in Oregon, but it will definitely grow here. Some of the fields and test plots that were planted last March and April now have 10-ft. tall plants. It is too early to say how well it will overwinter, but previous test plots in Prosser, Washington persisted for six years.
At this point, the Arundo in Oregon looks like a crop. It has not spread beyond the field borders. It hasn’t produced any flowers or seeds. PGE recently cut and swathed four of the 85 acres currently in the ground. It looks like it will be easy to bale. The canes were pretty well shattered by the mower/conditioner. Pieces of cane and rhizomes left on the ground were dried out and showed no signs of taking root. Oregon State University, PGE, and the first Arundo farmers deserve credit for being careful while sticking their neck out and trying something new.
None of this convinced the people in the group with first-hand Arundo-fighting experience. In fact, they looked at the first year, 10-ft tall plants and shuddered to think how well Arundo would do in our natural riparian areas. After the tour, some of them were less concerned with PGE’s plans to grow Arundo under irrigation circles than they were with Arundo being sold in the nursery trade. Wayne Lei, PGE’s chief engineer on the Arundo project, highlighted this issue by buying a pot of Arundo at a Portland nursery and planting it right beside the front door of the Boardman powerplant!
It seems clear that Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) needs to maintain regulations to prevent Arundo from establishing in riparian areas. This means we need to consider phasing it out of the nursery industry. If we don’t, sooner or later, someone will plant it on a river bank, and we’ll have a weed worse than Japanese knotweed on our hands. Assuming growing Arundo for biomass goes beyond the test phase, we also need to find a mechanism to pay for riparian area surveys. An assessment based on acres planted or tons produced was suggested. I like that idea. Just a dollar or two per acre would pay for a pretty robust survey and maybe some research as well.
Everyone loves the idea of renewable biofuels, and no one wants to introduce new weeds. Can we have it both ways? Planting huge quantities of Arundo involves risk, but maybe if we’re smart about how we do it, we can have our green electricity and our Arundo-free environment, too. What do you think? ODA will begin crafting Arundo regulations to replace the expiring temporary rule soon. We could use your input.