Northwest Renewable News

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Biomass option still on the table for Flathead Electric February 2, 2010

Filed under: Biomass,Montana,Utility Companies,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 3:55 pm

Flathead Electric Cooperative managers say they have long been exploring the potential for the development of a biomass cogeneration plant, but so far it has penciled out as the most expensive source to meet future power needs.

With the recent closure of the Smurfit-Stone container mill in Frenchtown, there has been a renewed interest in biomass cogeneration in the Flathead to serve as an alternative and productive destination for the region’s wood-waste products.

Chuck Roady, vice president of F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co., outlined plans to build a cogeneration plant at the company’s sawmill facility west of Columbia Falls during a recent panel discussion at Flathead Valley Community College.

Roady said one of the biggest obstacles to the project is the relatively high cost of continually gathering biomass material to power the plant.

“We have the same interests as Chuck does in biomass,” said Kenneth Sugden, the cooperative’s general manager. “We’ve worked with Stoltze for about three or four years.”

It is true that the co-op will be faced with the need to meet a rising curve in future power loads because hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration has been capped. The problem is that simply having BPA purchase power from other sources to meet power needs over the next 17 years would cost about half as much as the cost of local biomass generation.

The co-op estimates that adding a 15 megawatt biomass cogeneration plant to the local power grid would lead to electricity rate increases of more than 12 percent.

But Sugden stressed that the cooperative’s board of directors has never shut the door on the possibility.

“One of the misconceptions we hear is that our board has voted [on biomass cogeneration] and it hasn’t,” Sugden said. “Our board has said all along that we are interested.”

He said the board has instructed management to pursue all kinds of alternative energy sources. There is a state-directed goal of having 15 percent of the co-op’s power coming from renewable sources by 2015.

Sugden said the co-op worked with Plum Creek Timber Co. on a potential biomass cogeneration plant for several years, but the company suspended those plans in early 2008.

Now the Stoltze project has taken on a higher profile, largely because of the closure of the Frenchtown pulp mill.

“This has become a big issue and people want to talk about it,” said Mark Johnson, the utility’s assistant general manager. “It has become a more popular item.”

Johnson and Sugden said they will meet with Roady for more discussions on how to make biomass cogeneration more economically feasible.

“We’ve got to either make the project smaller or we have to get the costs down,” Sugden said, acknowledging that some form of government subsidy could advance the project.

Johnson said there currently are better government tax incentives and grant programs available for solar and wind energy projects than there are for biomass projects.

“If it were treated on par with solar and wind … it would be able to lower the cost of the Stoltze project,” Johnson said.

Solar and wind have won political favor because they are carbon-free energy sources. While biomass advocates maintain it is a “carbon-neutral” energy source, it is not considered to be as clean as wind and solar.

Johnson noted that wind and solar have the drawbacks of not being consistent sources of power and they are not likely to be significant energy sources in Northwest Montana. He said it is obvious to the co-op’s board that the region has abundant timber resources.

“For us, it is the major renewable in our area,” he said.

Sugden and Johnson acknowledged that many people would consider a 12 percent power rate increase to be palatable, particularly if it helped save jobs and the wood-products industry.

However, they said the board must account for the people who could not afford such an increase, particularly during an economic recession. Electricity rates already are slated to go up 3 to 5 percent this spring, an increase that the co-op incurred in October but intentionally deferred over the winter months.

“We have seen an incredible increase in people having a hard time being able to pay their bill,” Sugden said.

Johnson added that the co-op’s billing department is “talking to people they’ve never had to talk with before.”

They said the board must find “a balance” in new energy sources and affordability.

JIM MANN, The Daily Inter Lake –


Sisters schools may convert to biomass under proposal

Filed under: Biomass,Oregon,Renewable Energy Projects,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 3:41 pm

The Sisters School District may be the first district in the region to install a biomass heating system at one of its schools, and it might be able to do so without making any upfront investment.

In the past, school board members have been supportive of using biomass — wood pellets, in this case — to heat its buildings, but the immediate cost of about $125,000 to install a new boiler was too high as the district struggled with tight budgets. The school board is scheduled to consider the new plan at its Wednesday night meeting.

If the school board approves the plan, the district will begin with the high school’s heating system, which is its costliest and so has the largest potential savings.

Backers of the plan say it would eventually save the district thousands of dollars while benefiting the environment.

No initial cost

The new plan would allow the district to pay for the system over several years. In three years of researching biomass systems, this is the first time that Director of Operations Leland Bliss has found a way to pay for the system with no initial investment.

“We’re looking for a way to do it so it’s not going to affect any of the budget,” Bliss said. “We want a program that’s no cost to the district.”

Under the new approach, the district would pay a set fee to Energyneering, a local biomass company. The fee would be equal to the district’s current heating costs at the high school of about $60,000 per year. No contract has yet been signed and so details might change, Bliss said.


After about 10 years, the district would own the system, according to board member Glen Lasken. At that point, the district would pay only for the wood pellets and, depending on heating oil costs, could save tens of thousands of dollars a year.

“In the long run, it’s a cost- saving measure,” Lasken said. “That’s probably the driving force.”

Lasken said the board had not yet decided whether to support the plan, but that he hadn’t found any issues with it.

“We need to ask if there is any risk, if anything happens to the company involved. Are there any hidden costs?” Lasken said. “I don’t see any significant problems.”

Bliss said the stable costs would be an immediate benefit for the district. With its current system, the district uses diesel, the cost of which can fluctuate from day to day, Bliss said.

If the board agrees to the biomass plan, the district could more accurately project what its high school heating costs would be, Bliss said.

“We could budget a price and not have the volatile fuel prices jumping,” he said.

Rare company

The system would put Sisters in rare company. Schools in Enterprise and Burns are the only ones in Oregon with biomass systems already in place, according to Phil Chang, a program administrator at the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council. COIC has advised the school district as it looked for biomass options.

The biomass system would help the district both save money and use renewable energy, Chang said.

“It’s a highly effective and appropriate use of wood for energy,” Chang said. “It lets (the district) do a good thing by getting renewable energy online.”

Using biomass can also help the local economy, according to Chang.

With a heating oil system, much of the money spent leaves the state, he said. A biomass system can use local wood that would otherwise go to waste, such as sawdust from mills and waste left from forest thinning projects.

“If the school district buys locally produced wood pellets, all of the money stays in the community and is circulated in the community,” Chang said. “We’re stopping the leakage of that (energy) money.”

Patrick Cliff, Bend Bulletin


Weyerhaeuser-Mitsubishi sign biomass fuel deal

Filed under: Biomass,Manufacturing,Washington,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 3:12 pm
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Weyerhaeuser Co. said it’s signed a deal with Mitsubishi Corp. to explore possible future biomass-to-energy deals.

The Federal Way timber giant (NYSE: WY) and the Tokyo trading company said they’re interested in the feasibility of opening a commercial-scale production facility next year that would make bio-pellets from biomass (materials from trees and wood byproducts) and sell them to utilities and industrial users for energy production.

Mitsubishi currently operates two bio-pellet facilities in Japan and already has a deal to make bio-pellets in Germany.

“This opportunity has the potential to offer a significant renewable energy option here in North America and beyond while also creating green jobs in our operating communities. At the same time, we have the opportunity to enhance the value of Weyerhaeuser timberlands by converting residuals from our forest management activities into a new revenue stream,” said Dan Fulton, Weyerhaeuser CEO and president, in a statement.

Puget Sound Business Journal –


Study suggests burning wood pellets in place of coal can be cost-Effective February 1, 2010

Filed under: Biomass,Farm/Ranch,Oregon,Utility Companies,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 2:15 pm

A recent study concludes that burning biomass in place of coal, such as Portland General Electric is considering for its Boardman power plant, can be cost-effective.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, looked at replacing all or part of the coal supplying power plants in Ontario, Canada, and it found that co-firing with wood pellets and coal was a realistic way to reduce a plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A mix of 90 percent coal, 10 percent pellets would increase the cost of electricity from the two test plants’ by 0.6 and 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour, the study says, while significantly reducing the amount of climate-changing gasses they produce.

“If 10% co-firing were to be implemented in all coal (plants) in the United States and Canada, electricity generation from biomass could contribute approximately 4% of annual generation of the two countries (185 of 4660 TWh), reducing GHG emissions by 170 million metric tons/year, 5% of emissions from the two countries’ electricity sectors,” the study says.

Read about PGE’s plans for biomass at its Boardman coal-fired power plant here.

“The results suggest that electricity produced from biomass in existing coal GS should be considered, along with other alternatives, as a means of achieving near-term GHG reductions,” it says.

But there are limits to how many pellets forests can sustainable supply, the study cautions.

(Hat tip to Green Inc.)

Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian –


More on possible biomass plant conversion in Boardman, Ore.

Portland General Electric has three options for its Boardman power plant: close it, stop burning coal there, or make costly upgrades to clean up emissions.

Most of the debate about Boardman, Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant and the state’s largest single source of air pollution, has focused not on whether, but when, it should shut down. But the utility is looking at the possibility of keeping Boardman open by burning biomass instead of coal to spin its turbines.

They aren’t the only utility considering replacing some of their coal with plant material, but they are among the few thinking about doing away with coal entirely by using biomass, said Christopher Wright,  a research engineer and biomass energy specialist at the Idaho National Laboratory.

“In that regard, they are on the forefront of that thinking when we look out on the landscape,” Wright said.

Coal-fired power plants in Europe, charged with reducing emissions of climate-changing gasses, are already replacing portions of their coal with wood pellets imported from British Columbia, the southeastern United States and elsewhere.

“Once the Europeans realized that that was a fairly cost efficient way to meet the goals for renewable energy standards, the demand started to grow very rapidly over the last four or five years,” said Keith Balter, senior economist with Forest Capital Partners in Portland.

North America’s pellet industry has grown from having the capacity to produce about 1 million metric tons in 2003 to an estimated 6 million tons last year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

U.S. coal plant owners see similar regulations on the horizon, so utilities like PGE are considering mixing wood pellets with coal in their boilers.

“We’re actually looking at doing some co-firing with green pellets in the very near future, just as a test,” said Jaisen Mody,  director of generation projects for PGE.

Right now, Oregon’s wood pellet industry is focused on home-heating stoves and animal bedding products.

Andrew Haden,  vice-president of A3 Energy Partners, a Portland pellet-for-energy company, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that if just 15 percent of Boardman’s energy needs came from biomass, that would require about 500,000 tons of pellets year.

“That would mean a doubling or even tripling of Oregon’s pellet production,” Haden said.

Assuming testing at Boardman goes well, and they could find enough pellets, the Portland-based utility estimates it can replace up to 20 percent of the coal at their 585-megwatt Boardman plant with wood pellets similar to those used to heat homes.

While that would drop Boardman’s contribution to climate change, PGE would still need to install expensive upgrades at the plant to comply with clean air laws, which is what prompted the utility’s recent announcement it could close the plant by 2020, about 20 years ahead of schedule, or switch to an alternative fuel.

“When you replace all the coal with biomass, you could reduce the amount of that equipment substantially,” said Mody.

View full sizeSo PGE is looking at whether it can replace all of the millions of tons of coal it burns a year at Boardman with plant material that has been pre-treated through a still experimental process called torrefaction.

In torrefaction, plant material is roasted at high temperatures – 200 to 300 degrees Celsius – until it becomes a dry, high energy substance similar to the Kingsford charcoal you might use to grill steaks on your Weber.

This so-called torrefied biomass can be easily converted to pellets, making it easy to haul and simple to burn at pulverized coal plants like Boardman.

“This acts like coal and behaves like coal,” Wayne Lei,  director of research and development at PGE.

But it’s not nearly as easy to find as coal.

There are no commercial-scale torrefaction facilities in the U.S. And PGE estimates it would need about 2 million tons of torrefied biomass a year to operate Boardman, which supplies about 15 percent of the energy used by its more than 800,000 customers.

And though the torrefied material has a high energy content, it requires significant energy to produce, calling into question whether it’s a truly renewable resource.

“At this point, it doesn’t seem realistic, because torrefaction is really in an experimental phase and not at a commercial scale,” said Cesia Kearns,  an anti-coal activist with the Sierra Club.

Kearns said PGE should focus on a mix of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency initiatives to replace Boardman’s power production. The utility could also replace part of Boardman’s output with new natural gas plants.

“It’s not going to be a silver bullet, but rather silver buckshot” that replaces Boardman, Kearns said.

Mody said that torrefied biomass, what little there is, costs from $100-120 per ton, roughly three to four times coal hauled by rail from Wyoming.

A big part of that price difference is the cost of transporting the biomass to Boardman.

Lei, PGE’s research chief, said the answer to the supply question could lie in a tall, reed-like grass called Arundo donax, or giant cane.

Californians know the plant as an imported species that has run wild along some of their waterways, causing extensive environmental damage. But PGE thinks the plant can be safely grown as a crop in Oregon and converted to fuel for Boardman.

They would need to convince enough farmers that it’s in their economic interest to grow a lot of giant cane, about 90,000 irrigated acres worth. Morrow County, home to Boardman, has a total of 89,897 acres of irrigated farmland planted in food crops.

“Can they routinely, sustainably get that amount every year from the Oregon countryside?” said Wright of the Idaho national lab.

That’s just one of the questions PGE will consider as it spends the next several years planning for Boardman’s future, or lack thereof.

Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian


$100M biomass plant proposed in Longview January 30, 2010

Filed under: Biomass,Oregon,Renewable Energy Projects,Wood Products — nwrenewablenews @ 6:45 pm

A Longview, Wash.-based paper company plans to build a $100 million plant that would be the largest waste wood-fueled power plant in the Pacific Northwest.

Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging Inc., a manufacturer of craft paper, corrugated boxes and container board, filed paperwork last week with Washington’s Department of Ecology to seek a permit for the plant, said Sarah Taydas, a company spokeswoman.

The combined heat and power plant would replace an existing 25-megawatt wood-fueled biomass plant that now generates 30 percent of the electricity for the company’s Longview pulp and paper mill.

Taydas said the company has yet to determine whether the electricity generated by the new plant, which could be in operation by the third quarter of 2011 if approved, would be used to power its operations or whether it will sell the power into an energy market thirsty for renewable fuel sources.

Erik Seimers, Portland Business Journal –


Is Biomass the Brave New World of Energy? January 27, 2010

It was an idea hatched in algae. Now its creators believe it could grow into a better way to power the West, and possibly beyond.

First things first, the scientists at Whitefish-based Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies (AACT) must put their idea into action and test its efficiency. And they have found a willing partner in the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. of Columbia Falls.

Scientists at AACT have a vision to use woody biomass and algae to produce both heat and commercially viable organic compounds for use in fertilizers. In the process, the system would create methane to be converted into electricity while also capturing and utilizing carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

A team of engineers and scientists is currently working on a model biorefinery for Stoltze. It will be implemented at Stoltze’s mill site over the next couple of months and, if it proves efficient, a much larger full-scale biorefinery will follow. Mike Holecek, a project leader, said the system’s pyrolytic boiler can handle a range of biomass, but initially woodchips will be the primary fuel.

The project, called the “Green Power House,” has already garnered investors and a range of supporters, including retired Air Force Lieutenant General Richard Swope, who now works as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has been part of multiple alternative energy projects.

Swope said the Defense Department has steadily increased its desire to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and pursue alternative energy resources. The Air Force, Swope said, is the Defense Department’s largest consumer of fuel.

“There have been a number of flight tests conducted with military aircraft with a mix of biomass-derived jet fuel,” Swope said.

Current research, on behalf of the Defense Department, is seeking ways to “convert biomass specifically into feedstock or fuel,” Swope said. Keeping his eye out for groundbreaking alternative energy projects, Swope happened to find one in his own backyard. Swope, who lives in Whitefish, said AACT’s project could have influence far beyond Stoltze’s mill site.

“Absolutely, something like this could help at the national level,” Swope said. “It could help with the Defense Department.”

In December, Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. announced the closing of its linerboard plant in Frenchtown, ending employment for 417 workers and raising serious questions for an already beleaguered timber industry in western Montana. Smurfit-Stone was the state’s biggest buyer of slash, small trees and sawmill residuals. Many in the logging industry relied on the mill.

The linerboard plant’s closure triggered discussions about the potential of biomass-derived energy in Montana. With such a major wood consumer gone, folks in the state’s timber industry were left grasping for new uses for forest products. Biomass energy began to dominate headlines throughout Montana.

Furthermore, NorthWestern Energy announced in early January that it’s in discussions with Smurfit-Stone officials about the possibility of turning the shuttered linerboard mill into a biomass power plant. When in operation, the mill already functioned as a biomass cogeneration plant, burning wood products in a boiler to produce energy used at the facility, as well as excess electricity put back on the power grid.

NorthWestern is also working with the Montana Community Development Corporation to study the feasibility of turning other mills into cogeneration biomass power plants.

On Jan. 21, Stoltze hosted a biomass energy forum as part of the “Re-Powering the Flathead” community dialogue series at Flathead Valley Community College. One of the speakers was Dr. Evan Sugden, a member of the AACT team. The event was heavily attended.

Amid all the biomass headlines, AACT’s proposal is particularly striking, primarily, because the ball is already rolling and, secondarily, because it’s such a foreign concept to most outside of scientific circles.

At its core, this seemingly brave new world is actually rooted in two familiar standbys: warm water and old friends. Several years ago, Holecek, who has a background in biochemistry and environmental design, was asked by his friend Paul Stelter to research new approaches to utilizing the geothermal qualities of Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, located in the town of Hot Springs. Stelter is part owner of Alameda’s.

From that initial research came the creation of Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies, a partnership between Stelter, Holecek and Michael Smith, who, like Holecek, lives in Whitefish. Sugden, a scientist and professor at the University of Washington, joined the team later. And Swope came on as a chief strategist and promoter, while numerous other people lent their support, through money and otherwise.

In Hot Springs, the AACT team launched a project using low temperature geothermal water to grow algae. The algae are fed into geothermal-heated bioreactors, or digesters, which are essentially sophisticated composters. Sugden calls the Stoltze project’s digester an “algae-eating, mechanical cow.”

The bioreactors consume the algae, along with some cellulose, to produce methane, which is converted into electricity. The Flathead County Landfill installed a system last year that takes methane emanating from trash and turns it into electricity.

But what really caught the scientists’ attention wasn’t the methane produced by the digesters; it was the waste product the digesters spit out. That waste product turned out to be a substance ideal for use in soil amendments such as organic fertilizer.

Also, the scientists discovered that their project’s control system is intelligent enough to manage any type of thermal energy, including heat at sawmills. That discovery led to discussions with Stoltze. And while the AACT team is now focused on the Stoltze project, it hasn’t abandoned its geothermal research, Holecek said.

Sugden, emphasizing the difference between “hot” and “warm” water, said there are numerous warm springs scattered across the West that could be utilized to run algae-based systems like AACT’s.

At Stoltze’s model biorefinery, bioreactors will digest algae – grown on site in a greenhouse – and produce organic compounds for fertilizer, similar to the Hot Springs geothermal project. But it will also incorporate a high-tech pyrolytic boiler. The boiler will generate heat to dry lumber in Stoltze’s kilns, as well as steam to run the rest of the system.

The boiler serves another important function – it produces biochar, or charcoal. The biochar can then be combined with the other organic compounds produced by the system for use in organic soil amendments. The organic fertilizer market, the AACT team points out, is growing rapidly.

With the system, Smith said carbon is sequestered and used to make a substance that could be valuable for agricultural purposes. He sees both commercial and environmental potential. So does Swope.

“The beauty is that there is an enormous amount of intellectual energy coming together to try to solve and resolve energy issues,” Swope said. “It is very exciting.”

Meyers Reece, Flathead Beacon –