MATT GOURAS

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- NorthWestern Energy told state lawmakers Friday that a Frenchtown linerboard plant soon to be shuttered by Smurfit-Stone Container could make a good location for a biomass energy production facility -- but no firm plans are in place.

Northwestern Energy said entering talks about such a plan with Smurfit-Stone would be premature until that company emerges from bankruptcy.

"We have contacted Smurfit and told them we would be interested in having a conversation with them about that facility," company lobbyist John Fitzpatrick told the legislative Environmental Quality Council.

But getting the plant would just be the first of many big issues to deal with, he said.

A biomass plant would burn wood to make electricity using a conventional boiler system. It would be used as a source of primary power for NorthWestern, and would not be suitable as "firming" power for other alternative energy sources like solar and wind, Fitzpatrick testified.

Fitzpatrick said the U.S. Forest Service would have to allow a lot more logging of beetle killed trees in order to ensure enough fuel to keep a large plant running. NorthWestern estimates that as much as 4,000 acres a year would be needed to supply such a facility.

"Something is going to have to happen with this process so you can get quantity for fuel supply," he told the legislative oversight panel. "They are not doing a tremendous amount of logging at this time."

Other types of fuel, such as agriculture waste, would not work because the transportation costs would be too high, he said.

But he told the EQC that NorthWestern plans to pursue the idea as a way to get another sizable power plant in the state.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has said that wood that would have gone to Smurfit's pulp mill could be used as an energy source.

Tester is trying to advance a plan to mandate a lot more logging in Montana, and a lot more cutting of beetle-killed trees. It is touted as a careful compromise between the logging industry which would get the trees and environmentalists who would secure more declared wilderness area with the deal.

Smurfit-Stone Container's pending closure of the plant, which employs 417, will be phased in over the rest of the month.

Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. first announced on Dec. 14 that it was closing the Frenchtown plant as the company sought to cut costs and emerge from bankruptcy protection.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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