UM Biomass on Hold as Natural Gas Prices Dip

Thanks to Matthew Koehler for this one..

UM biomass project on hold as natural gas prices dipBy CHELSI MOY of the Missoulian | December 2, 2011

For the first time since natural gas prices began to dip, the fate of the University of Montana’s proposed woody-biomass gasification plant is clear: the project is on hold.

“It’s not financially viable at this time,” said Rosi Keller, UM associate vice president for administration and finance. “We won’t move forward until it is.”

Keller’s comments came during an open forum on campus Thursday directed at educating UM students on the $16 million industrial-sized heating plant project that UM proposed to reduce its carbon footprint.

About 45 people showed up to listen to presentations by Keller and Ben Schmidt, an environmental health specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department. The forum, hosted by the ASUM Sustainability Center, was aimed at informing students so they could make up their minds about the project.

Recent media reports of UM’s request for an air quality permit in order to build the project have sparked increased student interest, said Stacy Boman, ASUM sustainability coordinator.

“Students have come into the center wanting to know more about it,” she said. “We hope that they understand the issue and can join the discourse surrounding the biomass project and can offer up their own thoughts and opinions.”

Most of the students in attendance at Thursday’s panel discussions were environmental studies majors or members of the UM Climate Action Now! Many support UM switching from natural gas to woody biomass.

“It’s much less controversial among the student body than with the community,” said Zach Brown, a 21-year-old environmental studies major.

Brown wants to see power generated locally, which is why he supports UM’s proposal to burn upward of 16,000 tons of biomass trucked in from local forests. UM currently imports natural gas, which means the side effects of drilling and hydraulic fracturing are left for others to clean up.

While switching to biomass in some cases would increase emissions in Missoula’s air shed above the level of natural gas, Brown thinks forcing consumers to have to deal with these issues may change their habits.

“If those side effects were in our faces, we may question our level of energy consumption,” he said.

If anything, students had concerns about the kinds of biomass that would be used and where it would come from. It’s important that the fuel is collected from areas within 100 miles of Missoula, said Alison Wren, a 21-year-old environmental studies student. And Brian Nickerson, 21, hopes UM ensures that it only uses biomass that is sustainably harvested.

However, none of this will matter if the price of natural gas continues to decrease.

The state of Montana negotiates a two-year contract for natural gas, which includes UM. Currently, UM pays $7.10 per dekatherm for natural gas. Only if the price reaches $8 a dekatherm would the university’s biomass project become financially viable, Keller said.

Since the beginning of the project, natural gas prices have decreased 15 percent, said Tom Javins, UM biomass project manager. And it’s possible that once the state renegotiates a contract for natural gas a year from now, UM may be paying a price for natural gas that biomass can’t beat.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at Chelsi.moy

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