High Desert Biomass Cooperative buys heating system

By: Randy Parks - Nov 08, 2017
Source: Burns Times-Herald

On Oct. 6, the High Desert Biomass Cooperative (HDBC) signed the papers to buy out the co-op formed several years ago by Wisewood Energy and Harney Community Energy to provide sustainable heating to Harney County School District (HCSD) No. 3, the Harney County Courthouse, and Symmetry Care.

The heating system is up and running and has been so effective, HDBC is looking to expand, as 40 percent of the energy now being produced is not being sold.

Lori Cheek, a HDBC board member, said expansion of the co-op would reduce the costs for all members as well as provide a benefit to the community as a collective co-op. She noted that, while the co-op is not hiring, it is providing jobs and work for people already in town, such as Burns Electric, C&B Sanitary Service, and Burt’s Fabrication.

The co-op is a result of several years of planning and hard work that began in 2012. The winter of 2012 brought colder temperatures than previous years, and the cost of heating Slater Elementary School sent heating costs soaring. Knowing the school district couldn’t face that sort of budget crunch every year, the school board was tasked with finding and installing a more efficient, and less expensive, heating source.

About the same time, the Harney County Court received word that the boiler in the courthouse would be condemned and decommissioned for use by 2016. After receiving the news, former Harney County Judge Steve Grasty put out a Request For Proposal (RFP) for bids on a new heating system for the courthouse.

Andrew Haden of Wisewood Energy submitted a proposal and made a presentation to the court for a new heating system to include a wood pellet boiler. Wisewood had already created a biomass wood pellet boiler for Harney District Hospital with great results.

Later that same day, Haden made a presentation at a HCSD No. 3 workshop regarding using wood pellets for the schools.

Independent of one another, Grasty and Cheek, the board chairman at the time, had similar responses — they both felt pellets were not a viable or practical alternative for either entity, and they both wanted to somehow incorporate “hog fuel” (rough chips) into a sustainable heating system.

After a trip to Europe, Haden returned with a proposal for a biomass heating system that incorporated technology Haden had learned about overseas. Following a “multi-boiler project” proposal, community meetings were held, and it appeared as though funding for the project may already be in place. In August of 2014, however, the U.S. Endowment Foundation stated it was unable to provide funding as originally planned.

On Dec. 4, 2014, a community meeting was held with representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Forest Service, the Economic Development Division for the state of Oregon, Bureau of Land Management, and forest industry representatives to hear about the potential of the new biomass heating district proposed by Haden and Wisewood Energy.

The concept of forming a co-op was proposed by Fred Flippence and acted on right away, and plans for development and incorporation were put into motion. In May 2015, a co-op was officially formed, with Harney County and HCSD No. 3 as the key creators. With help from attorney Ron Yockim, the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, and USDA, the co-op was off to a great start. The co-op was formed with five voting members: two from HCSD No.3, two from Harney County, and an independent business manager. The group also sternly agreed to binding arbitration to make decisions.

An advisory board was also established, including representatives from the Burns Paiute Tribe, local forest industry, and a business manager.

Cheek noted that Mike Billman of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a local expert on biomass and forestry products was originally hired as the project manager in 2015. Since then, Billman has put in countless hours to help the co-op with completing the buy-out of Harney Community Energy.

Cheek added that, without Meyer Memorial Trust and Craft3, they wouldn’t have been able to create or buy this heating project for Harney County.

Craft3 is a nonprofit community development financial institution providing loans that strengthen businesses, families, and the environment throughout Oregon and Washington. Since its inception in 1994, Craft3 has invested more than $450 million in people and businesses from offices in Port Angeles, Seattle, Spokane, and Walla Walla, Wash., and Astoria, Bend and Portland. Craft3 expects to open a new office in Klamath Falls in late 2017.

“Catalytic, rural projects like this one in Burns will be the foundation of Craft3’s energy investment strategy over the next five years. We’re pleased to be Harney County’s partner in building community resilience and proud of the many parties that came together to make this deal happen,” said Adam Zimmerman, president and CEO of Craft3.

With the heating system and co-op now in place and functioning, the co-op is focusing on expansion. Prospective clients include a couple of churches, the former Lincoln Junior High building, and possibly even some residents.