Community-based project addresses several issues

By BARBARA COYNER

For the Capital Press

As legislators huddle over the fine points of renewable energy, carbon credits and climate change, a Northwest energy company has moved the ball down the field a little farther.

Teaming up with eight Montana sawmills, forest landowners and the Montana Community Development Corp., NorthWestern Energy plans to study community-based woody biomass power in Montana. The utility has 656,000 customers in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Although it has dealt with wind, solar and geothermal in its renewable-energy portfolio, biomass offers some extras.

"This could be a national template," said Craig Rawlings, head of small log and biomass development activities at Montana Community Development. "It's tied to forest health issues and could also be a new revenue stream for area sawmills. We have a lot of overstocked forests and beetle kill. With the mills still in place, we don't have to move the junk wood very far."

Rawlings said that with current uncertainty in the pulp and lumber markets, wood power offers a chance to keep logging and mill infrastructure intact. At the same time, reducing wildfire potential and improving forest health both count as public service angles.

"Ratepayers would have to pay a bit more under this plan, and that might be a tough sell. But it would make local mills more viable, and there would be a main emphasis on forest health," he said.

The loose-knit consortium plans to analyze supply, facilities and long-term environmental and economic options in its initial studies.

Because the individual sawmills already have boilers and technical expertise, the power company must consider how to best set up equipment and connect each partner to the grid. Rawlings said the group is looking into 50-mile and 100-mile working circles in terms of biomass supply.

Montana Community Development has been studying woody biomass power in depth for several years, Rawlings said, and his consultants are bullish about aggressively moving into the game. In a "now or never" scenario, experts cite favorable public policy, higher public approval of such innovation and a pressing need to improve the health of Western forests.

So far, one major holdup has been the cheap power that's been readily available. Whether coal or hydropower, NorthWestern Energy had no real need to jump into woody biomass. Yet pressed to add alternative energy, company officials have been uneasy with the instability of wind power, and they have also hesitated to work with myriad small solar providers.

The woody biomass partnership would offer standing agreements and seamless generation possibilities in addition to community benefits. As Rawlings said, keeping a sawmill in business often means keeping the power company's biggest customer in business. He said that in the past, the partnering sawmills have investigated building their own biomass power plants, but costs and technical issues have blocked progress.

Partners now expect the feasibility studies to lead toward a sound business plan and eventually construction of a new plant.

Freelance writer Barbara Coyner is based in Princeton, Idaho. E-mail: barbcoyner@gmail.com.

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