Montana saw mills to participate in biomass power program

By Anna Austin
Posted October 20, 2009, at 4:45 p.m. CST

Upper Midwest/Northwest power utility NorthWestern Energy, the Montana Community Development Corp, and eight saw mills across Montana will play key roles in developing a community-based biomass power program.

The project is being funded with a $125,000 grant from Montana Department of Commerce and a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

Many Montana saw mills have been working separately to produce electricity to sell to the state power grid, however, cost and technical issues surrounding plugging the power into the grid have stymied progress, according to Rosalie Cates, MCDC President. "We've been working with these individual saw mills in Montana for quite awhile, to connect them with consultants who could do the feasibility studies for combined-heat-and-power generation at their sites," Cates said. "They could size the plant, figure out the supply and the economics related to the saw mill, but all encountered the same set of problems trying to sell it to the utility."

At the same time, NorthWestern Energy has been motivated to add renewable energy into its portfolio, as it's required by law, Cates said. "We decided to bring all these concerns to the table at once and deal with them as a package, so the obstacles can be cleared for Montana saw mills to provide them with that renewable power."

Montana's current renewable portfolio standard requires utilities to obtain 10 percent of their power from renewable resources from 2010 to 2014, and 15 percent by 2015 and thereafter.

Craig Rawlings, MCDC forest business consulting manager said the reason the mills were attractive renewable power generators is because they all possess wood-fired boilers, and no byproducts or other wood waste from their logging operations. "A lot of them are obsolete and need to be updated, so this is a good opportunity for them to do this-increase their efficiency, install better pollution technology and produce some power and steam along the way."

The partnership will entail feasibility studies to include analyses of the biomass supplies available on private and public land, potential biomass generation facilities, operational requirements and preliminary impacts of the biomass production on local economies and the environment. Each of the mill sites will be assessed, so that NorthWestern and the saw mill businesses can identify and address issues such as connectivity to power lines, cost efficiencies and technical problems.

One or two of the mills are expected to break ground in 2010, as a lot of them are already in engineering/financing stages, Rawlings said. "The biomass power idea will be moving forward at least eight Montana saw mills over this winter, and by March we expect to know what the possibilities are," Cates added. "It could serve as a model nationally."