School of Economic Sciences

Agribusiness Management

The Prospects for an Electrical Generation & Transmission Cooperative Fueled by Straw Produced in Eastern Washington*

By Ken Duft and Judson Pray**


The objective of this study was to determine the economic prospects of operating a cooperatively-owned electrical generating and transmission facility fueled by straw produced in eastern Washington. Beyond the generally-understood parameters of a cooperatively-owned enterprise, this study attempts to address several related economic feasibility issues. For example, the total availability of straw first had to be determined. Second, the total cost of producing, harvesting, transporting and storing fuel (straw) was estimated. Next, we sought to determine the most cost-effective means (from amongst those available) for harvesting, transporting, and storing the straw. Fourth, we attempted to determine the costs to construct, operate, own, and manage a straw-fired electrical power generating facility. Next, an assessment is made as to the profitability and competitive performance of such a facility within electrical rate schedules currently in place throughout the region. Finally, we sought to entertain additional secondary benefits which might contribute to, or accrue from, such a prospective project.

Our research findings suggested that not all wheat, barley, and grass seed straw is economically available for harvesting. Where yields are low and distances are great, the cost of harvesting, storing and transporting eastern Washington straw may be excessive. From amongst our annual production of "eligible" straw, however, supplies are more than sufficient to fuel not just one, but a multiple of 30 MW electric co-generating facilities. The most cost-effective location of such a facility (or facilities) would be Whitman County, due mostly to its central location and its inherent density of straw production.

Electricity could be produced from straw burning at an estimated total cost of $0.08 kwh, compared to current retail rates of around $0.04 kwh. As such, straw does not currently appear to be an attractive alternative fuel compared to those we traditionally rely on. This alone, however, does not render the straw burning option to be uninteresting. Should the regional demand for electricity continue to grow, and should traditional sources of fuel prove fixed in magnitude, other alternative (and more expensive) sources of fuel will need to be explored. In addition, straw burned in the process of producing electricity incorporates several externally-generated benefits not normally accruing to non-renewable fuels.

* Research on this project was conducted with support provided by the Bonneville Power Administration, the Northwest Cooperation Development Center, the Washington State Council of Farm Cooperatives, and Washington State University.

** Professor and Research Assistant, Dept. of Agricultural & Resource Economics, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-6210.

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Tractor-baler wheat field

Wheatstubble fire taken by

Photo: Wheat Stubble
Burning taken by Larry Schwarm; used with his permission. 

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