Stoltze sees opportunity for biomass power plant

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The closure of the Smurfit-Stone container mill in Frenchtown has amplified the need and potential for a co-generation plant fueled by biomass in the Flathead Valley.

That was the message from a panel of speakers at Flathead Valley Community College on Thursday night. It was the fourth in a series of seven programs in the Re-Powering the Flathead Community Dialogue Series.

“We definitely have the excess [biomass] now without Smurfit,” said Chuck Roady, vice president of Stoltze Land and Lumber, a company that has been aggressively exploring the potential for a co-generation plant at its sawmill complex west of Columbia Falls.

“We have a real passion about trying to do something with this,” said Roady, who went on to make a strong pitch for the future of biomass energy to a crowd of nearly 150 people.

“Most importantly, it helps us manage our forests,” he said, explaining how roundwood, chips and otherwise useless byproducts from logging projects have for years been hauled for productive use at the Frenchtown mill.

Now, much of that material will be left in the woods to rot or be burned in open slash piles, increasing air pollution.

The better alternative involves putting the material to energy-producing use, burning it in a high-tech furnace with emissions controls at a co-generation plant, he said.

Stoltze did a detailed analysis of biomass availability within a 75-mile radius of its Columbia Falls facilities, finding there would be enough available material under the company’s historic, rather than potential, harvest levels to provide fuel for the 15-megawatt co-generation plant that Stoltze wants to build.

But Roady said there is urgency involved with the company’s pursuits: specifically, Montana’s infrastructure of experienced loggers, truckers and their equipment.

“We have ... still hanging on by their teeth, the loggers and truckers,” Roady said.

He noted that the state of Montana’s Jump Start Program for putting loggers to work with forest stewardship projects has cost about $700 an acre to implement.

But a similar program in Colorado costs twice as much because that state’s logging infrastructure vanished years ago.

“It takes two years to build one of these plants. We need to think ahead,” Roady said in an interview Friday. “Why not take advantage of the natural resources we have right here, let alone the people and the infrastructure we have in the forest products industry. That’s one of the things that would keep the costs down.”

Stoltze estimates it would cost about $50 million to build a 15-megawatt plant, and that’s where the obstacles arrive.

Even after up-front investments, producing biomass energy continually costs about three times more than existing power sources in the Flathead, most notably hydropower. That’s because biomass material must constantly be cut, processed and transported.

“Even though it costs more doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do,” said Roady, who stressed that the key to building a co-generation plant involves winning the support of Flathead Valley ratepayers to go along with modest increases in power costs.

An increased availability of investment capital, along with tax credits and fuel incentive programs that match those that are available for the development of other renewable energy sources, would help Stoltze in its efforts, Roady said.

He urged the FVCC audience to “think beyond today,” and realize that population growth in the region will eventually create the need for additional energy sources.

Bill Carlson, a consultant who has played a part in multiple biomass energy projects across the country, and Angela Farr, manager of the Montana Department of Natural Resource and Conservation’s biomass utilization program, both affirmed the feasibility of developing biomass as an energy source in the Flathead.

Both also outlined many of the challenges discussed by Roady.

Carlson noted that because Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines in Western Montana are at capacity, a local co-generation  plant would need to be integrated as a local power supply. And supplying a co-generation  plant also must rely on nearby biomass because of transportation costs.

“At the end of the day, biomass is local,” Carlson said.

The next program in the Re-Powering the Flathead series will be “Building Green Homes for Today and Tomorrow,” scheduled for Feb. 18.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com

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