UM considers biomass CHP

By Lisa Gibson
Posted September 14, 2010, at 10:46 a.m. CST

The University of Montana in Missoula could reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent with a new biomass combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant, pending approval in November from the board of regents.

The $13 million plant would run on about 60 to 70 tons of forest slash per day, depending on the moisture content of the feedstock, and produce 700 kilowatts (kW) of energy for the campus, according to Hugh Jesse, director of facilities at the university, although supply agreements are still in early discussions. "It's intended to take over 60 percent of our existing load of steam on campus," Jesse said. The facility will use a Nexterra Systems Corp. gasification system with a back pressure turbine and will be an addition to an existing natural gas heating plant on the campus. The existing plant will remain operational during peak hours.

The school's annual carbon footprint is about 45,000 tons, according to Sustainability Coordinator Cherie Peacock, and the biomass CHP facility will more than fulfill the Climate Action Plan goal of 10 percent carbon reduction by 2015. The plan also strives for carbon neutrality by 2020.

Feasibility studies are underway, including those to determine availability of feedstock. The school has applied for a U.S. Forest Service grant and other funding opportunities through its performance contractor, Jesse said.

Besides the carbon reduction, the plant will also represent monetary savings for the school. "The cost of the fuel is less than the natural gas and the project has to pay for itself," Jesse said. "This has to be net zero or better to go forward." If the project is approved, construction will begin in the summer of 2011, he added.

The facility could also serve as a learning opportunity and be incorporated into the university's curriculum. "That is one of the factors we're trying to work on," Jesse said.