County awarded grant for wood energy project

San Juan Islands Conservation District was granted $181,882 for wood energy projects from the Washington Department of Commerce. The agency announced $482,768 in grants on Nov. 5 from the Forest Products Financial Assistance Program to four proposed projects that provide heat, power, engineered fuel products and/or significant energy efficiency improvements. The program emphasizes projects that use woody biomass from forestry management activities and wood products manufacturing.

“We’re very excited about this award and it helping us move forward on our forest health and sustainable energy objectives,” San Juan Islands Conservation District Executive Director Mike Ramsey said. “There has been tremendous public support throughout the county when we’ve presented our forest health and bioenergy concepts at various events that this grant will begin to address.”

The grant allows the San Juan Islands Conservation District to develop appropriate energy and biochar technologies to process woody biomass at different distances from town centers. This proposal includes a technology assessment, site analysis and conceptual design of an advanced wood energy microgrid gasifier system to generate heat and power for community facilities on Orcas. Ramsey explained that this project provides local sustainability and energy independence; revives a stagnate forest economy by creating jobs; is a wise use of natural resources; and is great for carbon sequestration.

All grants must be matched at least dollar-for-dollar with other sources of non-federal funding.

“The matching funds are coming from the conservation district and a host of project partners interested in San Juan County becoming wildfire resilient, and energy independent all while improving overall forest health,” Ramsey said. “Most of the matching funds are in-kind donations for work already planned. We have 90 days from the award announcement to secure confirmation from them.”

In August, San Juan Islands Conservation District held a meeting about forest management on San Juan Island. During the meeting, Energy Program Manager Ryan Palmateer said he believes a good plan for the future of San Juan County is combined heat and power production using biomass collected from across the islands. He explained that it is efficient, clean, economical and sustainable.

The energy produced by a biomass plant would be around 2.6 million kilowatt-hours per year, compared to Orcas Power and Light Company’s community solar project, which averages 500,000-kilowatt-hours per year, Palmateer explained.

“This is one piece in a multi-pronged approach to what I call island resource independence,” Palmateer said. “What can we use wisely as a resource and what can we leave natural and untouched?”

A project of this caliber would cost $3-8 million, but Palmateer said it would pay for itself in time.

The district is always looking for grant opportunities through federal state and local agencies, Ramsay said. Currently, the district is developing a Resource Conservation Partnership Program application for implementing cost reimbursement subsidies for thinning and fuel reduction projects. The partnership program is funded by the 2018 Farm Bill with $300 million available nationwide, he added.