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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Energy study sees gold mine in cow pies

Washington could supply half its appetite for residential electricity with things found in the trash and the barnyard, according to a new report.

It just needs to figure out how to use the 41,039 dry tons of apples that don’t make it to market each year. Or the 7,932 tons of poultry feathers. Or the 699,436 tons that drop from hind ends of cows.

“If we watch what we do, we have a lot of resources at hand that we don’t ever think about,” said Mark Fuchs, the Department of Ecology official who conceived and oversaw the four-year Biomass Inventory and Bioenergy Assessment.

The report, released Thursday, attempts to quantify the weight and energy potential of various kinds of biomass, an important part of the picture for officials looking to ease dependence on fossil fuels. It measured 45 kinds of waste in terms of their dry weights.

The report concludes the state has an annual unused biomass of almost 17 million tons, enough to produce 1,769 megawatts of electric power. There aren’t now enough facilities to burn or anaerobically digest all that waste, but the report gives policy makers an idea of the potential for alternative forms of energy, Fuchs said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has pushed for the state to explore alternative forms of energy. And there are several places statewide, such as the waste-to-energy plant in Spokane, that already are using some forms of biomass. The Spokane system burned more than 268,000 tons of material in 2001, producing 166 million kilowatt hours.

“Washingtonians deserve affordable alternative energy sources, and biomass has terrific potential to contribute toward energy independence,” Gregoire said Thursday in a statement.

The report, conducted by Washington State University and the Department of Ecology, will be presented Monday at a conference on clean energy at the Red Lion Hotel.

Einstein first proposed the equivalence of mass and energy: All stuff, in other words, is just energy waiting to happen. Researchers in the new study set out in 2002 to calculate how much stuff is out there in Washington state.

Craig Frear, an associate in research at WSU, combed census figures and databases, and calculated water weights and waste proportions to come up with the figures.

Researchers then figured how much electricity could be produced by burning the waste or by breaking it down with bacteria – but they did so mostly as a way of quantifying energy potential, not to encourage those particular approaches. Burning, in particular, can have harmful environmental effects, researchers said.

“We’re going to have to come up with some more environmentally conscious approaches to harness this energy,” Frear said.

Frear said there are other technologies that can turn biomass into energy or fuel, but they’re still expensive and experimental. He hopes that the new report will be the first step in developing concrete, economically sound approaches to producing energy.

By far the biggest category of biomass in the report was forest and wood waste. “Woody biomass” constitutes 84 percent of the total and more than 88 percent of the potential energy in the report. But it also notes some of the problems related to biomass energy proposals. The woody waste is spread among logging sites, mill yards and other places and would be difficult to collect and process.

Fuchs said the biggest surprise for him was how much organic waste is in ordinary household trash that’s entering municipal landfills. In Spokane County, for example, more than 4 million tons of food waste, yard debris, grease and other materials are produced, the report says.

“There’s a lot of stuff that gets thrown away,” he said, “but there really isn’t any ‘away.’ … It’s out there somewhere.”

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