UM suspends biomass project

By Anna Austin | December 05, 2011

The University of Montana-Missoula has suspended indefinitely its proposed biomass power project, due to the current low cost of natural gas.

The decision comes after more than a year of heated debate on the plant’s potential environmental impacts, though a recently completed environmental analysis reported that the plant would not significantly impact the human environment.

UM President Royce Engstrom made the announcement during a Dec. 2 campus news conference. He said that the while emissions from the proposed plant were projected to be well within legal limits and facts don’t support a significant impact on Missoula’s air quality, natural gas prices have dropped considerably in the past year. In addition, UM has not yet been able to identify a reliable source of affordable biomass, according to Engstrom. “While reducing (campus) carbon emissions is the right thing to do, I cannot commit the university to doing so under conditions of financial loss,” he said.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, prices of natural gas at most pricing locations across the country just before Thanksgiving were below $3 per MMBtu.

The $16 million combined-heat-and-power plant would have employed a Nexterra Systems Corp. gasifier, consumed about 15,500 bone dry tons per year of woody biomass, and reduced UM’s carbon footprint by about 22 percent.