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Biomass meeting draws a crowd in Wallace, ID November 11, 2009

Filed under: Biomass,Idaho,Renewable Energy Projects,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 8:24 pm
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With oil supplies dwindling, carbon footprints expanding and ice caps shrinking, countries around the globe are seeking cleaner, more renewable energy sources.Here in the United States, growing environmental concerns are a hot topic in Washington, D.C. — where “going green” has become a ubiquitous political catch-phrase. Locally, the welfare of Panhandle ecosystems is a top priority for the Forest Service, Idaho Fish and Game, IDEQ, area firefighting districts and other groups.

Keeping with the worldwide environmental trend, authorities from various organizations gathered at the Wallace Inn Thursday and Friday for the Forest Restoration and Biomass Roundtable. Attendees filled a large conference room, listening quietly as Shoshone County Commissioners Vince Rinaldi, Jon Cantamessa and Vern Hanson began the proceedings.

The commissioners touched on a primary goal of the roundtable: To discuss the potential for building a biomass facility somewhere in the county.

“Our basis of operation is the health, safety and welfare of our population,” Rinaldi explained. “We have a project in mind; we are very concerned with our WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) in Shoshone County. You need to listen to the people we’ve assembled. We really believe they have something to say.”

The proposed facility would utilize biomass as a primary fuel, churning out roughly 6-20 megawatts of electricity. A combination of organic forest materials like slash, small treetops, brush and grasses, biomass is a fuel that burns quite cleanly, is almost entirely renewable and can be obtained in large quantities. A plant in Shoshone County would reduce autumn smoke from burning slash piles, and, by eliminating large quantities of combustible biomass, would also reduce the risk of a 1910-type fire disaster.

From environmental and engineering standpoints, biomass facilities make a lot of sense. But before a plant is constructed, various cause-and-effect relationships must be considered, including the economic and ecological impact of such a facility. And of course, as with any large-scale project, cost is a deciding factor.

That’s why the commissioners invited several panels of foresters, biologists and engineers, all with wide-ranging knowledge in many different fields of study. The first topic was the ecological conditions of Shoshone County, with presentations by Carol Randal and Von Helmuth of the Forest Service, county fire risk expert Henry Nipp and IDFG personnel Jim Hayden and Ryan Hardy.

Randal went over the makeup of area forests — what kind of trees are growing where, what size logs, the prevalence of diseases, etc. Nipp discussed fire remediation and mitigation tactics within Shoshone County’s WUI, while Hayden and Hardy spoke of the game and fish that call the county home.

The second panel began with Randy Swick, district ranger for the Coeur d’ Alene ranger district, who noted that just one pile of slash could cover one household’s entire electric bill for one month. He added that biomass can be found in many places throughout Shoshone County; rehabilitation stands, 1910 fire areas and logging sites were three examples given. Swick also highlighted the Coordinated Resource Operating Protocol (CROP), which will be utilized by the Forest Service to ascertain just how much biomass is available.

Bob Helmer, of the Idaho Department of Lands, discussed the potential biomass availability on state lands — saying the challenge will be collecting material that supports energy markets but does not penalize existing industries. Next up was Mike James from McKinstry Essential, whose company has been contracted with Shoshone County to conduct a feasibility study for the facility. He delved into the option of utilizing municipal solid waste as a biomass feeder (which, he said, would be much better than the current solution of piling waste in a landfill).

Entering the afternoon session, Chad Davis of Sustainable Northwest presented the economic benefits of wood-to-energy technology, while Dr. Harriet Ammann (Amman Toxicology Consulting, LLC) and Wayne Kraft (Washington Department of Ecology) spoke on emissions technology, regulations and options.

The workshop adjourned following an overview from Rinaldi and James; it recommenced Friday morning at 8:30 a.m., focused on moving forward with the potential project. A committee called the Core Planning Group was organized.

“[The group’s] primary function was just to bring some structure to this project,” Cantamessa said. “We thought that the session was very successful from what we were hoping for when we organized it.”

Rinaldi commented on the general mood of the roundtable, which drew in more attendees than the commissioners had been expecting.

“The thought was: This makes sense, we hope it works,” he said. “From the economic development standpoint, that part of it is a no-brainer.”

Considering the roundtable altogether, every facet of the two-day meeting was a small part of the big picture. A biomass facility would make Shoshone County “greener” and open the door for sustainable energy. It would create new jobs (both during construction and after), eliminate fire-prone logging slash and ostensibly provide a better solution for municipal solid waste. And it would also affect the ecology of the region, hopefully improving the health of the county’s forests.

But a facility is still a long way off, and a lot of mapping, plotting and planning needs to take place before the blueprints are drawn up. The commissioners said more meetings will be scheduled as the project takes shape; stay tuned for new developments.

NICK ROTUNNO, Shoshone News Press


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