Energy partners want to turn pollution into algae

By Kris Bevill | September 16, 2008
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Web exclusive posted Oct. 6, 2008 at 5:02 p.m. CST

Algae-to-biodiesel projects seem to be sprouting up almost as easily as the slimy, green stuff grows, and the outcome of those projects will no doubt be as varied as the types of algae used in each project. One of the most recent algae-inspired projects is being undertaken by Washington-based Columbia Energy Partners LLC, which hopes to convert carbon dioxide from a coal-fired electricity plant into algal oil.

CEP is a renewable energy company that primarily focuses on wind and solar energy. However, the company's vice president, Jon Norling, also owns a biodiesel company. Two years ago, Norling approached one of Oregon's electric utilities, Portland General Electric, on behalf of CEP to pitch the idea of converting carbon dioxide from the utility's coal-fired plant in Boardman, Ore., into algal oil for the production of biodiesel. Norling told Biodiesel Magazine that he elected to approach PGE for the project because it operates Oregon's only coal-fired power plant and "they are a progressive company" that might be willing to participate. The Boardman plant also happens to be located in the eastern part of the state, which is conducive to algae growth, he said. This summer, PGE agreed to begin exploring the option.

Norling said CEP is currently conducting the first phase of what will potentially be a three-phase project. A feasibility study is underway at the 600 megawatt Boardman facility to determine if algae can feed on the carbon dioxide emitted from the plant and what amounts of carbon dioxide, and potentially other greenhouse gases, can be consumed by the algae. Seattle-based BioAlgene LLC is providing the algae strains for this portion of the project, according to Norling. The possibility of a larger build-out is also being researched at this time. He anticipates a full-scale operation to include 7,500 acres of open air algae ponds.

Results from the first phase should be available sometime in December, Norling said. At that point, if the results are positive, the company can move forward with engineering details and the construction of larger, in-ground algae tanks while continuing to research the process. Norling said PGE requested the project be conducted in "baby steps" and he expects a commercial-scale project to be three to five years away. "There are some major issues," he said, noting the difficulties of keeping open-air algae ponds free from contamination and the actual process of squeezing oil from the algal as potential obstacles that need to be overcome.

CEP is financing the project. The company hopes to eventually sell the carbon credits it would gain from the process back to PGE or another buyer, as well as generate revenue from the algae oil and potential animal feed byproducts.
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