It's not easy going green 

UM's goal of carbon neutrality by 2020 may sound great, but key elements of the plan could prove problematic.

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In this case, Dennison points out that alternative transportation is a systemic issue that requires more than a climate plan to solve. Unwilling to sit back and wait for transportation systems to change, he strongly suggests the university community get involved in the political process of transportation legislation so there is a premium put on using alternatives.

"There are so few options right now, nationally," Dennison says. "There's work going on, but it's going to take a while and we need to be pushing as hard as we can to get the policy developments that will allow us to make progress."


The Plan:

The climate action plan lists four renewable energy generation options for campus: wind, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and a biomass plant. Bob Duringer, UM's vice president of administration and finance, took a long look last December at the cost-effectiveness of all four options and decided biomass was a major key to UM achieving its goals.

In March, he visited biomass plants in Canada and interviewed several companies before settling on one called McKinstry, which has an office in Missoula. A biomass plant for UM would generate both heat and energy for the school using woody biomass—excess wood from beetle kill, thinning projects and harvest scraps—most of which would be collected from UM's own Lubrecht Experimental Forest. The plant is projected to reduce the school's consumption of natural gas by 60 percent.

The Issues:

UM has not fine-tuned the details, but Duringer says the biomass plant will cost between $10 million and $13 million and take from 15 to 18 months to build. It's a steep price for any project and Duringer still has to bring the idea to the Board of Regents to get approval for the huge initial costs.

It's also important to consider from where the fuel for a biomass plant will be harvested. The farther the distance between a biomass plant and its source of fuel, the more diesel you use to haul the wood. As the main source of UM's fuel, Lubrecht is a 45-mile drive from Missoula, so the transportation energy used for that has to be docked off any gains UM makes with producing biomass energy.

There is also the issue of perception when it comes to forest management and pollution. Several articles, including a July 5 story in the Washington Post, accused biomass proponents of using the technology as an excuse to cut more trees—and release more greenhouse gases—just to make more money.

Another dilemma surrounding biomass energy in recent months concerns the fact that burning biomass also releases more C02. A study commissioned for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science concluded that use of even sustainably harvested forest biomass would increase C02 emissions 3 percent over coal-fired power by 2050.

click to enlarge A poplar plantation at Missoula’s water treatment plant uses sewage effluent for irrigation and could, eventually, help fuel UM’s proposed biomass plant. Current plans for the plant are focused on using fuel from the school’s Lubrecht Forest 45 miles away, but the plantation is a mere three miles from campus and would use less diesel. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • A poplar plantation at Missoula’s water treatment plant uses sewage effluent for irrigation and could, eventually, help fuel UM’s proposed biomass plant. Current plans for the plant are focused on using fuel from the school’s Lubrecht Forest 45 miles away, but the plantation is a mere three miles from campus and would use less diesel.

Along with C02 release comes the release of particulate into the air, which can sit as smog in the valley for days. That is a hot topic for Missoula, a city already dealing with poor air quality.

The Solutions:

Despite the high costs for building a biomass plant, one selling point of renewable energy is that it eventually pays for itself.

"The money you save by not using natural gas then goes to the debt you had incurred from borrowing money," Duringer says. "So it's almost a self liquidating situation."

The details of making biomass energy at UM more efficient is complicated—but offers some very real solutions. Biomass expert Dave Atkins works with a multi-state program called Fuels for Schools and Beyond, a partnership between the USDA Forest Service State Private Forestry and the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc. His job is to figure out the logistics for schools, hospitals and other institutions that want to build a biomass plant; specifically, how big the plant will be and where the fuel will come from.

Lubrecht Experimental Forest will use more diesel than something closer, says Atkins, but the forest is still within an energy efficient radius for UM. That means the energy produced by the biomass plant exceeds the energy spent in the diesel it takes to harvest and transport it there. Energy savings, according to Atkins and other UM researchers, don't change much between a transport distance of 45 miles and 80 miles. Still, UM's goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuels like diesel. In that light, other options exist.

Steve Running and UM graduate student Heath Carey have been working on a project with the city on a poplar plantation that's watered with treated sewage effluent at Missoula's water treatment plant just three miles away. The poplars are a decade away from being a viable fuel source, but eventually they could be harvested in batches, dried and fed into UM's biomass plant.

"When you put treated sewage effluent on a tree farm, the trees are getting water and nutrients and they just grow like weeds," Running says. "We could have co-generating heating sources that could use those trees as a heating source."

Atkins also has ideas to address the biomass distance problem. One would be to create more urban forests in Missoula like the poplar grove. Specifically, Atkins would like to see alder groves planted around town because alders would not only be a great wood source, they also add nitrogen to the soil for other agricultural purposes. Local trees that die from ice storms or other conditions could be used in the plant, and even more trees could be grown on nearby farms and ranches that have fallow or marginal land to offer. In addition, forest management projects that happen in nearby forests at Blue Mountain or Pattee Canyon always yield leftover wood, which could be a supplemental biomass source.

In regard to the negative perception of forest management, the solution might lie in the natural supply and demand of economics. Woody biomass is basically comprised of leftover pieces and dead, otherwise unusable material, so it doesn't sell for much. That means harvesting whole forests for biomass wouldn't be smart economics.

"If you're going to do a treatment, whether it's for wildlife habitat, wood production or reducing fire hazard," says Atkins, "you're going to want to get as much value as you can. You're going to sell logs to sawmills that are paying more, or round wood to a manufacturer. Biomass energy is the janitor that comes along and cleans up the leftovers. It would be against anyone's personal interest to cut down just anything for biomass."

The aforementioned Massachusetts study that claims biomass would release more C02 than coal also includes some important stipulations that are key to UM's success with biomass. The study says a plant that uses biomass for both heat and electricity—and not just one or the other—would produce "significant carbon emission reductions." UM plans to build a plant that does exactly that.

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