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Sifting Reality from Possibility

By Barbara Coyner

As Congress debates renewable energy, carbon credits, and climate change, the nation's woody biomass advocates often stand on the sidelines, begging to get in the game. But thanks to some innovative strategies and good old-fashioned teamwork, woody biomass took another giant step forward recently. Not surprisingly, it happened in Montana.

Template for Tomorrow
According to Craig Rawlings, Forest Business Consulting Manager at Montana Community Development Corporation (MCDC), a community-based woody biomass partnership has formed. Better yet, the emerging consortium might just offer a template for the whole country.

Rawlings said the first step is a feasibility study to analyze supply, facilities potential, and long-term impacts on communities and the environment. From there, construction and improved power grid configurations would start delivering woody biomass power to customers in three states.

Here are the players in the new partnership:

  • NorthWestern Energy, serving 656,000 customers in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
  • Montana Community Development Corporation, based in Missoula.
  • The Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Plum Creek Timber, The Nature Conservancy, Stimson Lumber, the Blackfoot Challenge.
  • Eight Montana sawmills including Eagle Stud Mill, Hall; Plum Creek Timber, Columbia Falls; RY Timber, Townsend and Livingston; Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Seeley Lake; Sun Mountain Lumber, Deer Lodge; Tricon Timber, St. Regis; FH Stoltze Land and Lumber, Columbia Falls.

Slow Process
Predictably, the Montana scenario has taken some time to gain momentum. As the eight sawmills analyzed the potential of building their own woody biomass generation plants, most realized the huge economic and technical obstacles. That stopped things dead in their tracks.

Forest health issues commanded attention too. Mills were looking for a reason to exist as pulp and lumber markets did the dance of death. Given the innovative thinking in the industry, no one was ready to give up on jobs, communities, or the forests.

Energy Companies Take Time to Come On Board
Forest gridlock started to decline as the public got fed up with wildfires, sickly forests, and lost jobs. Developing alternative and renewable energy also fed the desire to "do something!" But energy companies such as NorthWestern weren't exactly chomping at the bit to join the game when the company could already source inexpensive coal and hydropower.

Also, green power had some big impediments for the energy companies. For example, wind power is fickle and can't be stored -- it remains a bit unreliable. And solar entities, although popping up like toadstools, tend to be small enterprises, forcing energy providers to deal with several fledgling companies at once. As for woody biomass, energy companies have seen some challenges there as well, usually involving consistent supply and economical transportation.

Winning Scenario
Oddly, another angle with sawmills provided a breakthrough.

Usually, a local sawmill is one of the energy provider's bigger customers. If the sawmill goes out of business, or goes off the grid to create its own power, the energy company loses a major customer. Why not work with the separate mills, tie the energy from each mill into the grid, and give the mills a new mission? Talk about win-win, also promising loggers and truckers a new direction.

Thanks to MCDC's creative contacts and persistence, the whole scenario is coming to pass. Best of all, the forests benefit as the woods are thinned, and beetle-killed trees are turned into energy.

Team in Action
For Rosalie Cates, the head of MCDC, this is what the game is all about. Bring the players together, define the goals, and go out and play. The study will initially scope out 50-mile and 100-mile supply sourcing areas, maximizing proximity to each of the partner mills. The mills, already equipped with boilers and technical expertise, will be evaluated for upgrades and hookups to the grid. In time, NorthWestern Energy may build a new facility to further keep power lines humming.

For those in the timber industry, this is more proof that things really are happening. But outfits like MCDC and similar community development specialists elsewhere won't stop there. They'll keep investigating equipment breakthroughs, new marketing avenues, and sound practices to keep the industry viable.

Tip for Loggers
Meanwhile, as loggers look to upgrade their own opportunities with woody biomass, Rawlings offers a tip: "Keep that attachment versatility so you can snip, clip, mow, and cut," he says. "In the past, people often bought highly specialized machines that could only do one thing. Now you have to be ready to do a lot of different things."

Nobody in forest-related business needs to be reminded that the game is constantly changing, but woody biomass might be breathing new life into a stagnant industry. With a Boise equipment manufacturer rolling out three new stinger-steer trailers for biomass hauling, and another Texas company pioneering a trailer for drying biomass, transportation strategies are being investigated on college campuses and in the woods. Other creative loggers are setting up chipping sites and collecting the biomass within a given radius.

Although the politicians sometimes waffle on which way to go, it seems the creative forest industry thinkers aren't wasting any time. It's now or never for woody biomass and forest health.

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