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Oregon farmers to turn sorghum into electricity

If a new 10-megawatt biomass power plant opens in Heppner, Ore., as planned by late summer, growers in the region will find a new market for their sorghum.

Oregon farmers to turn sorghum into electricity

If a new 10-megawatt biomass power plant opens in Heppner, Ore., as planned by late summer, growers in the region will find a new market for their sorghum.

Oregon producers near Boardman and Nyssa have already harvested 1,500 acres of the special biomass-rich crop for the power plant, and have organized cooperatively as the AgriEnergy Producers Association. The group provides all of the sorghum for the facility that is expected to employ 17 workers.

Key Points

Sorghum biomass power plant is planned for Oregon.

Local growers have organized a co-op to support the facility.

Pellet byproduct may add to investor income at the plant.

AgriEnergy is a brainchild of the Ontario, Ore., Renewable Ag Energy engineering and consulting firm headed by partners Kurt Christensen and Lance Wells, who fostered the co-op into fruition a year ago.

With the Heppner plant in the final stages of financing, Christensen says the operational target for the plant in late summer is realistic.

“Running a biomass plant on sorghum is a pretty unusual idea here in the U.S., although many such facilities exist in Europe,” he says.

His firm is also consulting with producers in other areas of the U.S. to construct similar plants, but Christensen believes that only one other such plant is in the ramp-up stage in Texas.

Producers in the co-op are not contracted to grow for the plant, but as investors they have an obligation to provide sorghum, which will provide juice to run the digester and fiber for the power plant.

Pellets source of income

A byproduct of sorghum pellets would provide extra income to the grower investors, and contracting is already well under way to market 500,000 tons a year, says Wells.

Growers in the co-op have organized in a similar pattern to the area’s Amalgamated Sugar firm, with each producer owning stock in the cooperative. When signing on, they accepted the responsibility of providing no less than an acre of high-biomass sorghum for every stock share owned.

What may promise to be a big plus for the plant is a new technology developed by Renewable Ag Energy to “get more out of the crop,” explains Christensen.

The process developed by Renewable Ag Energy “significantly” reduces ash from the sorghum before combustion, explains Christensen.

At peak, the plant is expected to use some 10,000 acres of sorghum a year to produce the 10 megawatts, which Christensen says will remain the Heppner capacity in the near future.

‘Locked-in’ profit

“This is an opportunity for growers to produce something that can give them a locked-in profit for a number of years,” Christensen says.

“This is product which relies on a commodity market which may go up and down. We’re tied to long-term power agreements with public utilities,” he adds.

Sorghum, considered to be a rotation crop in the midrange of profitability compared with higher-value commodities like potatoes, would see a production increase with the advent of the new Heppner plant, Christensen says.

In 2009, fewer than 50 acres were grown in the Columbia Basin region, well below the 1,500 acres harvested in 2010 by co-op members providing a startup supply for the new Heppner plant.


SORGHUM SAGES: Oregon sorghum biomass plant consultant Kurt Christensen (left) joins Columbia Basin producers Craig Scott and Bill Romans, as well as Christensen’s business partner Lance Wells, at Ceres Inc.’s farm planting of high-energy sorghum in College Station, Texas. The special varieties grown in Oregon were developed by Texas A&M University.

This article published in the February, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.

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