Biomass project gets federal funds

Helena Independent Record

by Allison Maier

A Lewis and Clark County biomass project is making headway in obtaining federal funding.

This year’s Energy and Water Appropriations Act passed the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday. The legislation would provide $800,000 for the Tri-County Biomass Pilot Project, which would use woody biomass produced in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties to create renewable energy for the city of Helena. The three counties yield about 350,000 tons of biomass a year, from sources like dead trees.

The bill would provide all of the funding the county had requested for the project, which Sen. Jon Tester said is an indication of how good the proposal was.

“It makes sense for the region,” he said. “It makes sense for the country.”

Tester is part of the subcommittee that drafted the bill. He said the project is ideal because it creates jobs and addresses the concerns related to the number of trees that have been killed by pine bark beetles. If nothing is done about the dead trees, he said, they can put watersheds at risk and cause wildfires.

“There’s no doubt about what happens to the trees,” he said. “The trees will burn.”

The project is also timely, Tester said, since the Smurfit-Stone plant in Frenchtown that closed last winter had used biomass harvested in the past.

Tester’s proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act includes efforts to look into creating more biomass facilities in the state.

The Helena project would 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, Tester said.

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 energy and water act must clear the full Senate and House of Representatives before it is signed into law, though the timing for when it will be considered has not been set.

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.