University of Montana on a Mission

The University of Montana in Missoula will forge through opposition of its biomass gasifier, confident in its benefits.
By Lisa Gibson | July 28, 2011

Dealing with project opponents has become a staple of biomass project development in the U.S., and a plan at the University of Montana in Missoula is no exception. The school’s combined-heat-and-power (CHP) biomass gasification plant will reduce its carbon footprint by about 22 percent, or about 11,000 tons per year, but the Missoula County Air Quality Advisory Council doesn’t appear to be satisfied.

The citizen group advises the more powerful county Air Pollution Control Board, which has the authority to set regulations and would hear any appeals to the project’s air permit that was granted in June, but is subject to administrative appeals. The council urged the board to take whatever measures are possible to prevent or control air pollution. The board, however, denied a request to discuss the project, citing its responsibility to remain impartial should the project come before it in the appellate process. “The advisory council wanted the pollution control board to oppose the project,” says Tom Javins, university associate director for utilities and project manager. “But the Air Pollution Control Board cannot issue an opinion not backed by law or regulations.”

In a letter, the council outlined three specific concerns: twice the production of nitrogen oxide compared with natural gas; the area’s already high particulate matter (PM) emissions; and the project undermining efforts Missoula citizens have made to improve air quality by complying with restrictions on wood-burning home appliances.

“Their role is to improve the air quality in the Missoula County area,” Javins says of the advisory council. “So any change that doesn’t improve air quality, they don’t want to see.” But the dispersion models clearly show that while stack emissions will be larger in some areas than that of natural gas boilers, the effects to people on the ground are far less, he emphasizes. “There are two sides to the story and they, by and large, are only looking at one side.”

The $16 million plant will employ a Nexterra Systems Corp. gasifier and will consume about 15,500 bone dry tons per year of woody biomass. It’s expected to be operational in the second quarter of 2013, producing 700 kilowatts of power and 34,000 pounds of heat per hour. In addition, the university will incorporate the gasification system into the curriculum for the College of Technology’s energy technician and forestry programs.

The university is undeterred by the opposition and Javins is confident the project will move ahead as planned. “In addition to the air permitting process, we’re doing an environmental assessment under the Montana Environmental Policy Act,” he says, adding that the advisory council’s comments will be considered. “If there are any significant impacts that we can mitigate in the design, we will do that.”

The project is already designed to employ a noncatalytic nitrogen oxide reduction system and electrostatic precipitator to reduce PM, and Javins says the project would have met permitting requirements without either. “So we’re putting our best foot forward to have as clean a system as possible for the air shed in Missoula,” he says. “The appeals will probably not find much ground to stand on.”

—Lisa Gibson