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University of Montana plans to construct biomass boiler to heat, light campus

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Issue date: 
October 12, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Chelsi Moy
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Timber Procurement


The University of Montana is literally getting fired up about renewable energy.

UM is making plans to produce its own energy in the future by building a $16 million, wood-fired biomass boiler alongside its existing heating plant on the east side of campus.

It will be the largest industrial-sized biomass gasification operation in the state, reducing the campus' natural gas consumption by 70 percent, said Bob Duringer, vice president of administration and finance.

On Friday, UM received a $180,000 grant from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service for the project. Most of the work will be financed using bonds for energy and conservation projects specifically.

"If you're into sustainability, this is a major step forward," Duringer said Monday.

UM has long looked for ways to reduce its carbon footprint, beginning in 2008 with a greenhouse gas inventory, which revealed that two-thirds of the school's carbon emissions were produced by heating and lighting campus buildings. Last year, UM unveiled a climate action plan, which outlined how it plans to become carbon neutral by 2020.

The quickest and most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions included changing wasteful, energy-consumptive habits on campus, shifting to more renewable energy and for UM to generate its own energy, Duringer said.

So last month, the university launched a yearlong education campaign, running weekly advertisements in the Montana Kaimin that read "Be a total turnoff" - referencing lights - and "Fill baby fill" - using recycling bins.

UM looked first at the possibility of wind energy, which proved too expensive and complicated, before stumbling upon Nexterra, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, which designs and manufactures advanced gasification systems that convert waste fuels into clean, low-cost heat and power.

The company uses cutting-edge technology that reduces emissions below those of natural gas, hence, protecting the Missoula Valley's air quality, Duringer said.


UM also hired McKinstry, a Seattle-based consulting group, to help model whether the biomass plant would be a worthy investment, especially since natural gas is at all-time lows and the timber industry is volatile. The recommendation: Build the biomass boiler.

Most of the project will be paid for using bonds divided among states as part of the federal stimulus package. Uncle Sam, Duringer said, pays 70 percent of the interest. UM expects the project to pay for itself within 15-17 years.

Recently, the university paid to ship 100 tons of Montana wood chips collected near Superior to Canada to a Nexterra facility to test whether they would burn efficiently. The results, which came back last week, looked good, Duringer said.

UM intends to use forest waste - contracting with logging companies to collect the branches, bark and leaves left behind after timber harvesting - and also beetle-killed trees. But knowing the price of wood chips versus natural gas going forward is the one big unknown.

The University of Idaho in Moscow was ahead of the curve when it installed a direct-combustion wood boiler in 1986. Potential cost savings was not the school's motivation. At that time, there was an abundance of forest products, said Joe Kline, director of utility and engineering at UI.

The university buys its wood chips from nearby lumber mills. These days, the supply has decreased as mills close and consolidate, much like in western Montana. In 1986, UI paid $45 for a ton of wood. Now, the cost has climbed to $55-$60 a ton.

Even with a shrinking wood chip supply and with natural gas at historic lows, UI runs the wood boilers at half the cost of its gas plant.

UM will bring the project to the Board of Regents for approval in November and may begin construction next spring. The boiler will be 40 feet high, 120 feet long and 100 feet wide.

Twice a day, students will notice truck loads of wood chips arriving on campus. The boiler will burn an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 tons of wood a year. McKinstry will hire vendors and guarantee the performance of the venture. The company already has identified local firms that will supply wood at the necessary price to make the project viable. Such providers will be asked to sign five-year contracts.

In addition to the reduction of the campus carbon footprint, Duringer is looking forward to the boiler acting as a laboratory for forestry students and UM College of Technology students in the energy technology program.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut