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Montana Reports Shows Biomass Success Picture
By Barbara Coyner
As 2013 arrived, another California biomass facility made it through much of the extensive permitting process – almost. The proposed two-megawatt Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility near Lake Tahoe had gained the approval of the county, various fire protection agencies, and the Forest Service, but predictably the Center for Biological Diversity cited potential problems and filed an appeal.
Lawyers hired by the center have slowed down the development of a woody biomass plant, although many area residents see a great deal of practicality in developing the efficient gasification system. While the Sequoia Foundation (a public health organization) signed off on several health and environmental issues, the courts might yet have the final say on the project, which is estimated to begin operation in 2015.
Natural Gas vs. Biomass
But it’s not the lawyers contributing the biggest slowdown to woody biomass plants, it’s that cheap, abundant natural gas. To some, it is just plain hard to justify choosing biomass over natural gas in this lackluster economy. Yet woody biomass utilization does have extra value in the bigger picture. Consider, for example, the decrease in wildfire danger, along with the value of keeping community jobs and supporting the whole timber industry infrastructure. Clearly these add-ons give woody biomass extra traction.
To better understand the role woody biomass can play in the nation’s energy picture, nothing beats an actual set of statistics. In a recent report by the Montana Department of Commerce’s Energy Promotion and Development Division, contributions from the use of woody biomass were clearly spelled out.
Both Fuels for Schools and the Beyond Community Wood Energy Program were developed under the Montana Department of Natural Resources, and they offer assistance and guidance in developing biomass energy projects. That means the programs even pitch in with feasibility studies, engineering, and equipment costs, showing the state’s unapologetic commitment to the utilization of wood wastes. As the report’s introduction states:
Since its inception in 2003, more than 12,000 tons per year of woody biomass have been used displacing close to one million gallons of fuel oil, propane, and natural gas saving approximately $1 million per year. This has yielded a strong return on investment as $3.7 million in federal grants have been invested in 13 projects in the state.
In keeping with the practical approach, the focus has been on developing the facilities in the more heavily forested western parts of the state, although there have been feasibility studies done in the southeastern regions as well. These days, whenever natural gas has been the prevalent energy source, the scales have predictably tilted toward the cheaper costs. In the areas where woody biomass development has been encouraged, chips, pellets, and cordwood have all been used.
Darby School, the pioneer in the Fuels for Schools program, has even created a Community Partnership offering an attractive tax break to local property owners who donate forest thinnings to power the school boiler.
Fuels for Schools on the Rise
In a chart accompanying the Montana report, it is interesting to note that the Fuels for Schools projects took off in 2003, starting with the Darby School, and by 2008, eight other schools in western Montana had traded heating oil, natural gas, or propane for pellets and chips.
Darby School used 850 tons of biomass in 2009, saving the district $111,269 in fuel costs that year, as wood chips replaced fuel oil. In Darby and other school projects, community-minded logging contractors have often taken the lead in advocating for the new biomass energy systems. Such contractors have also contributed to supply in many cases.
From 2009 to 2012, hospitals in Plains and Superior, a prison at Deer Lodge, a Department of Natural Resources office in Anaconda, and the Deer Lodge Central Park Center have all traded their fossil fuel dependence for wood chips and pellets, each time realizing a demonstrated savings. The University of Montana’s western campus at Dillon realized the most fuel cost savings in 2009, recouping $168,420. The campus, however, displaced natural gas with biomass, so given the new lower cost of natural gas, the savings might not currently be as substantial. Yet at schools such as those in Troy, Kalispell, Philipsburg, and Eureka, there is an added sense that loggers in those communities still play a vital role in supplying woody biomass, while at the same time reducing dangerous forest fuels build-up.
The complete chart for the Montana projects can be found at http://commerce.mt.gov/content/Energy/docs/Energy CurrentsArchive/BiomassUtilization.pdf
Bring on Biomass in 2013
With 2012 going out as a somewhat ho-hum year for woody biomass projects nationwide, Montana illustrates that practical thinking can still prevail. The state took a severe hit with the notorious wildfires of 2000, and from there, communities banded together to determine a different course that would use fuels rather than allow them to go up in smoke.
Colorado, the latest to suffer extreme wildfire damage last year, might take a page out of Montana’s playbook, unless of course environmental lawyers are out of work…or natural gas prices stay ridiculously low.
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