County commissioners voted Monday to assign $120,000 to a study that will explore whether the county would be a good site for a biorefinery — a development that leaders believe would be a major boost for the area’s economy.
“I look forward to moving on this project,” said county commissioner Gary Stamper. “I’m very excited about it.”
The feasibility study will be conducted by the University of Washington at a total cost of $600,000, the rest of which is coming from the state and a TransAlta Coal Transition grant. Richard Gustafson, a chemical engineer with the university, has led UW’s efforts on the issue.
“We’d love to make something happen here in Lewis County,” he told commissioners Monday. “There’s a huge opportunity. … What needs to happen now for an industry to come in is they need more detail.”
Research by the university several years ago identified Lewis County as an ideal spot for a biorefinery. The new study will take on a more local focus, exploring things like whether local farmers and landowners will buy into the vision of planting poplar trees to provide supply for the refinery.
Gustafson has said that a moderate-sized biorefinery and the tree farms that supply it would provide about 200 direct jobs, with another 750 indirect jobs tied to the development. The development would be expected to produce about $190 million in economic output over its lifespan, with another $100 million invested in the construction period.
A biorefinery is a facility that converts poplar trees into fuel and chemicals. With its cheap land and available water, researchers believe Lewis County could become a prime site for the industry. Gustafson said a pair of companies have already expressed interest in constructing a biorefinery in Lewis County.
Bob Guenther, one of the study’s local backers, said the involvement of Gustafson and the university are a major boost for the county.
“If we can get people from the University of Washington down here looking at our economic opportunities, I think that makes a tremendous difference,” he said. “We’ve got an opportunity here. When we can incorporate this kind of horsepower to work with us, that’s huge.”
Guenther was joined by Bob Russell, who has also advocated locally for the project.
“It’s an industry that fits uniquely into Lewis County’s makeup,” he said. “The jobs are needed in Lewis County, and I believe it’s a great anchor business for future businesses. … This industry won’t just be those 200 jobs. Heavy industry has a way of pulling in multiple jobs to support that industry. I believe it’s visionary.”
If the TransAlta Centralia coal plant opts to transition to natural gas, rather than shutting down completely, Gustafson said there’s a strong potential to integrate the biorefinery and pair the industries to achieve cost savings. However, he said it’s not a “dealbreaker” if the plant is closed.
“We’ll do a pretty detailed study,” Gustafson said. “We’ll look at the biomass supply issues in a lot more detail … We’ll look at supply, we’ll look at the infrastructure, and then we have some research ideas that we believe could add value to the whole affair.”
He added that he intends to communicate with industry leaders and help them understand Lewis County’s commitment to supporting the development.
“As we get these companies hooked in, we’d like to bring them down and show that this is a community and you as community leaders would like to see something happen,” Gustafson said.
The feasibility study is expected to take about three years.