July August 2004





Wood Power  

Gathering Lays Out Facts on Waste Wood Energy

Chips being delivered to off-campus storage area.

By Barbara Coyner

Today’s wildfire dangers and overstocked forests encourage some strange bedfellows. It’s no secret that timber workers don’t always get respect from the college campus crowd, but a conference held this winter on waste wood energy production lined up logging contractors and college professors, elbow to elbow, as problem solvers. The conference, staged by the Inland Northwest Forest Products Research Consortium, also drew foresters, energy consultants and community development strategists. The big question for everyone: Can all those wood wastes from overstocked forests be put to use as energy rather than potential wildfire fuel? Conference organizers delivered real case studies, such as Todd Brinkmeyer of Plummer Forest Products in Plummer, Idaho, who runs the only strictly small-diameter log mill in Idaho.

The UI steam plant, in the heart of campus.

Along with cranking out 2x4’s, the facility produces five megawatts of power per day, which is sold to the regional utility company. “By today’s technology we’re old,” said Brinkmeyer of the non-pretentious power plant built in 1982 and powered by a large mid-50s vintage Westinghouse boiler. As a Qualifying Facility, the Plummer plant devours nine truckloads of hog fuel per day, with 30,000 tons per year of wood waste coming from its own mill and another 11,000 tons coming from outside sources. To keep things simple, the plant sells all its power to the grid, then buys back what it needs. Brinkmeyer says that while the system is old and under-maintained, it is a workhorse plant that breaks even economically, showing that even older technology provides something of a track record, especially with the abundance of wood waste available.

Ditto for the University of Idaho’s steam plant at Moscow, which has a proven track record since 1986, and is one of only two campuses nationwide heating (and sometimes cooling) with wood. The boiler unit consumes 200 tons of waste wood per day, furnishing heat to 70 percent of campus buildings and 90 percent of the steam used campus-wide. “We power a whole lot of showers when the students are on campus,” said steam plant manager Mike Lyngholm. “As a matter of fact, 7:30 am is our peak use.” Lyngholm says the UI system is practical because it is near mills, has a large storage area for the fuel, and puts tons of otherwise wasted wood to good use.

Piloting the large chip trucks through campus, of course, is a challenge as the campus grows up around the steam plant, but cost-wise, the university is money ahead. For example, one day in October the steam plant went off-line, with natural gas stepping in as a substitute. The day’s comparison showed that wood carried a price tag of $1,700, while the daily cost for gas was $7,000 for the 12,000-student campus. “Wood isn’t as simple and clean as natural gas, but it doesn’t seem to have the price spikes that electricity and gas have,” said Lyngholm, noting that the storage and handling of waste wood, and specialized equipment present the major challenges. Tinkering with existing technology, a school district in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley is wading into the wood-fired energy business under the “Fuels for Schools” program instigated with National Fire Plan monies.

After the wildfires of 2000, Montana very much wants to remove potential fire danger by thinning both public and private forests. That’s nothing new to the logging community, but both industry and communities adjacent to the woods still need to answer questions on supply, capital investment costs and practical solutions. Nan Christianson of the Bitterroot RC&D and Mike Tennery of the Forest Service say heating with wood is old hat in New England. “The technology is proven, but we’re working with a wood supply nothing like New England’s,” Tennery said. Going out on the proverbial limb, schools in the Bitterroot fired up a wood-fed gasifier plant in October, according to Christianson. The school district figured that private lands can provide the necessary 30 truckloads of waste wood per year for the pilot program, with 15 to 20 percent savings over natural gas, 40 to 50 percent over heating oil, and 50 percent or more over propane or electricity. At $30 per ton, the waste wood competes very well after capital investment costs are recovered, and the district will test clean chips versus material straight from slash piles in the future. In a win-win scenario, the school district can wean itself somewhat from fossil fuels and their volatile price fluctuations, plus provide local jobs, healthier forests and clean heat.

Christianson said community support for the wood-fired system had to be courted initially, in part because of concerns over air pollution. Once residents were told that the plume coming out of the stack would be water vapor, not smoke, opinions relaxed. “This system is much cleaner than burning your typical woodstove in the home or burning slash piles,” she said of the gasifier, which burns at 1800 degrees and produces little ash or smell. “The downside is that the schools have a ninemonth calendar and ideally the system should run year around” (Tennery added that hospitals and prisons would be good candidates for the system but “Fuels for Felons” might not be as popular a label).

Trying to get their hands around the issues of economics and dependable supply, both logging contractors and researchers learned more about Timberjack’s work with a new bundling machine, which would make woods cleanup and wood waste transportation more efficient. According to Richard Bergman of the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, Timberjack has a prototype nearly ready. Clarkston, Washington logging contractor Ray Moss is also developing a unit that bales woods residue for easier handling and storage.

Moss, who has long run on-site chipping operations, expects his prototype baler to be up and running soon. With problem solvers ready and willing, and proven technology available, the issues still boil down to supply and costs, both somewhat dependent on the fickle western forest politics. UI steam plant manager Mike Lyngholm said it best. “If we expect capital investment, there has to be a guaranteed supply. You’ll spend a minimum of $10 to $20 million for a typical new plant and you can’t do it on a promise and a whim.”


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