Local trees for local energy closer to reality

Helena Independent Record

by Editorial

Good news broke last week that a small-scale biomass energy project for our tri-county region has passed its first major hurdle in obtaining federal funding and becoming a reality.

The Energy and Water Appropriations Act passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and included an $800,000 request by local government officials to build a pilot project in Helena to turn local dead trees and wood waste into energy.

In early February, city and county leaders filed a joint resolution to develop a plan to turn beetle-killed trees into biomass, and biomass into energy. They then submitted a federal appropriation request to pay for the project by the March 1 deadline.

To meet the quick turnaround necessary for the appropriation deadline, county staff worked with invested community members to develop a plan to experiment with three different types of technology: a wood chip/pellet fuel arm at Carroll College, a boiler at a public works facility and a test unit for a pyrolysis system, which uses a high-temperature form of burning that produces less carbon dioxide than standard types of incineration. The project would help determine which of the technologies work best for the area’s needs before developing a full-scale plan. The boiler and pyrolysis test would each cost about $300,000 and the wood chip arm would cost $100,000. The remaining $100,000 of federal money would be used for project management, research and analysis.

The group that worked hard to quickly create the viable plan deserves recognition, as does Sen. Jon Tester, who sits on the subcommittee that drafted the bill and lived up to his promise that he “absolutely would” support the proposal.

The legislation would provide funding for several additional projects in the state, including biodiesel and generator projects in Bozeman, wind power research in Butte and plant-based biofuel development in Havre. The energy and water act must still clear the full Senate and House of Representatives before it is signed into law.

Now it’s up to Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg to also get behind it, and to help get these important alternative energy resources going here in Montana. Let our delegation know you support this plan.

The situation with dead, red trees is not getting any better, and an innovative solution awaits in this appropriations request. The sooner we can look to the future of local energy development, the sooner we can look up on our beloved mountain and elsewhere and not cringe at the sight of dead trees.