Breaking Away

The University of Montana is making biomass energy happen.
By Anna Austin | April 29, 2011

The University of Montana in Missoula is forging ahead with a biomass gasification combined-heat-and-power project that will replace 80 percent of its natural gas consumption.

UM has been carefully evaluating biomass for about a year and a half, according to Bob Duringer, UM’s vice president for administration and finance. Wind and solar aren’t feasible energy options given the college’s location, he says, and because Missoula is in a heavily forested area, biomass made sense.

On top of that, a fiberboard company in the area closed about two years ago. “So we knew there was a huge amount of marketable slash and other forest residuals out there,” Duringer says. The system would utilize 20,000 tons of wood waste per year to generate 34,000 pounds of steam per hour. Due diligence work with some wood chip and pulp firms within a 75-mile radius of the college has given UM a clear picture of fuel costs, according to Duringer. 

Feasibility studies completed by Mc-Kinstry, a Seattle engineering and construction firm, which will be UM’s performance contractor, and Nexterra Inc., the equipment provider, confirmed the viability of the project.

Total cost for project construction/system installation will be $16 million. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has provided a $180,000 grant toward the project, and the rest will be paid with monies saved from reducing natural gas costs. “We’ll divert that money to pay for the debt service on the plant, as well as the plant’s operations,” Duringer says.

UM already applied for an air permit, an economic assessment should be completed within a month and UM will take the project to the Montana Board of Regents for approval on May 19. “We anticipate that it will be approved, and then we’ll set the engineers loose to complete the design,” Duringer says. The goal is to have the system running by April of 2012.