Biomass Power Key to Future of Energy

By Beacon Staff

There is a move across the country to encourage renewable electrical power and several bills are moving through Congress mandating its usage. While many loudly shout about the positive use of alternative and renewable energy along with the need for America to be independent of foreign oil, they also do all they can to roadblock using wood to create biomass power. The opposition puzzles me and at some point those folks need a serious rethinking of what biomass power means to the future of Montana and the nation’s energy supply.

As is nearly always the case, one size does not fit all and not all power sources are appropriate for all needs. Many studies have been conducted for many years to prove that comment. Solar energy from the sun works when located in places with abundant sunshine for days on end, just as wind power is located usually in corridors where the wind blows a high percentage of the time.

Biomass power, on the other hand, is produced by boilers wherever the raw material is stored. The obvious conclusion from the use of biomass is to have the raw material as close as possible to the plant producing the power. This is what makes sawmill and wood processing facilities a natural for production of biomass power.

The other obvious conclusion is that the power produced must be able to be transported on a grid to the place where it is consumed. This again puts wood products facilities at an advantage because of location and the fact that the plants are already themselves large users of electrical power to run the mills. Putting into mills larger units to produce excess power only makes economic sense because those units are very expensive for the basic construction and yet can produce excess power with small increases of capital expenditure.

Montana’s largest utility has a state mandate to produce a portion of its power from renewables – 15 percent by 2015. The largest part of its portfolio currently consists of the use of wind power, but a huge bulk of its customers live in western Montana where there is an over abundance of biomass. There appears to be a match made in heaven for both Montana consumers and NorthWestern Energy, not to mention a great opportunity for the timber community and its facilities.

There is a feasibility study currently underway by NorthWestern Energy and a number of partners that includes analysis of the biomass supplies available on private and public land, potential biomass generation facilities, operational requirements and preliminary impacts of biomass production on local economies and the environment. After assessment of numerous possible facilities, the entities can identify and address issues such as connectivity to power lines, cost efficiencies, and any technical problems. The desired end result will be a statewide plan that could enable all parties to finalize investment plans and begin plant construction.

This is a golden opportunity to address the issue of red and dead trees covering Montana’s forest landscape by removal and use along with providing positive local economic development in keeping our mill infrastructure intact and running with the nearly 10,000 Montana families the mills employ when operating at capacity. In addition to being great for the economy, it is very positive for Montanans who need healthy forests in which to recreate and spend quality time.

Wood is one of the world’s oldest energy sources and is making a comeback nationwide because power plants are turning to wood to make electricity. There are dozens of plants on the drawing board across the country and Montana needs to be part of the excitement generated by the use of this form of a renewable resource.

More information on this exciting opportunity will be forthcoming in the months ahead and we sincerely hope the energy of the debate will be on the positive aspects and will be reflective of the energy that can be produced by one of nature’s most natural components and by Montana families.

Ellen Simpson is executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.

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