Proposal (2005)

Project Name
:  Forest fuels reduction subsidy decrease via conversion of low-value biomass to electricity, infusion into power grid at grid point closest to forest cleanup project, and marketing of green power produced.

Proponent:  Gary Marbut, dba B.I.T. Enterprises, Missoula, Montana

Introduction:  Western forests are overgrown with fuels which need attention by landowners, private, tribal, state and federal.  Experience demonstrates that landowners must invest in forest management, both for fuels and fire hazard reduction, and good habitat.  Some treatment costs may be recaptured by sale of merchantable material extracted from forests.  However, much of the biomass which must be addressed is "low-value".  Low-value woody biomass is forest material from pine needle diameter to about 6' in diameter.  The chief obstacle to dealing with this biomass is economic - transport cost.  The traditional methods of addressing this biomass are either piling and burning slash, which wastes the resource and produces significant air pollution, or "lop and scatter", which fails to maximize the fire-hazard reduction potential, wastes the resource, and also has air quality and habitat implications.  The cost of transport of this material exceeds the value of the material about 20 road miles from the forest cleanup site, which distance varies somewhat depending on quality of material, use of material, transport conditions, terrain, and more.

Proponent proposes to shortcut the transport cost dilemma by using the power grid as a method of transport.  Proponent will use biomass gasification technology to convert low-value biomass wood chips into electricity and infuse that electricity into the power grid at the closest grid-point possible to the forest cleanup project.  Proponent has explored various statutory, regulatory and engineering obstacles to this process and finds none insurmountable.  Proponent also proposes to test-market green power (electricity produced from a renewable resource) to individual and commercial consumers, so as to establish price ceiling for green power, raise awareness and develop mechanisms for delivery of small-project green power to consumers.

Proponent has planned a three-phase activity to test this concept:  A Pilot Project, a Demonstration Project, and commercial activity.  The Pilot Project will be self-sponsored, but with numerous cooperators, will make initial test of efficiencies, strategies and results, and will attempt to treat about 300 acres of overgrown forest.  Grant application will be made for the Demonstration Project, to treat about 1,000 acres, which will build upon the experience of the Pilot Project.  Both the Pilot and Demonstration projects will be intensely monitored for inputs, outputs, and efficiencies.  The ultimate goal will be to prove the concept, to develop necessary processes and to evolve a computer economic model which can then be applied to commercial activity - bidding contracts to apply forest fuels reduction work to other properties, federal, state, tribal and private.  The commercial goal is to be able to treat forested lands at less cost than with other methods, and with significant reduction in air pollution and more effective fire hazard reduction, because of the biomass conversion to and sale of electricity.  This reduction in necessary subsidy for forest management will allow more widespread forest treatment with finite investment, and more local employment.

Technical Relevance and Merit:  Woody biomass gasification equipment is currently available in 15kW and 50kW packages.  For eventual commercial activity, proponent seeks the most biomass conversion equipment that can be mounted on a highway-legal, flatbed trailer.  The unit must be mobile for relocation from forest cleanup project to project.  It is determined from surveys of biomass conversion equipment currently working in India, Scandinavia, South America and the U.S. that the size package needed will produce about 100kW of electricity.  The Pilot Project will use a 15kW unit.  The Demonstration Project will use either one or two of the currently-available 50kW units.  The power grid lines most likely to be encountered near a forest cleanup project will be those of rural electric cooperatives (REAs).  The Bonneville Power Administration has indicated a willingness to offer technical assistance to REAs to help them overcome technical barriers associated with accepting distributed inputs to their systems.  Proponent could sell the power produced to the REA at its "avoided cost", to the default supplier in Montana (NorthWestern Energy) at its avoided cost, or to consumers which proponent has recruited, in each case with or without the "green tags" associated with production of electricity from a renewable resource.  Green tags could be marked separately, as may air pollution avoidance credits.  Proponent's currently-preferred alternative is to market green-tagged power directly to consumers, and pay the REAs and default supplier for transport, but to market any air pollution avoidance credits separately.  However, any permutation of these options will involve breaking new trails, which will remain available for any subsequent entity to use.

Technical Approach/Work Plan:  Biomass gasification and energy conversion to shaft power is not new.  Civilians in WWII Europe commonly converted motor vehicles to run on woody biomass, due to lack of motor fuel stocks tasked to the war effort.  Conversion of shaft power to electricity is also proven technology.  What is uncommon now, except in India and Scandinavia, is utilizing the full path of biomass to electricity by small producers.  Many sub-processes will need to be developed in order to vet the entire concept.  Biomass will be chipped in situ at the forest cleanup project.  A Swedish tracked utility vehicle (BV206) will be used to transport chips from the forest to the conversion unit at the power grid.  Use of this vehicle will nearly eliminate any need for roads into the forest cleanup area.  Because biomass will be transported only from the cleanup project to the nearest distribution power line, transport distance can be kept to a minimum.  The exact schedule of the grant-funded Demonstration Project will depend, in large part, upon what is learned from the Pilot Project.  The Pilot Project, to treat about 300 acres, is tentatively scheduled to begin in May of 2005, and expected to last about eight weeks.  The Demonstration Project, treating about 1,000 acres, could begin as early as August of 2005, or as late as May of 2006, and is expected to last about 16 weeks.

Thorough monitoring is intended to be one hallmark of both projects.  Several cooperators have already agreed verbally to assist in developing the monitoring plan, and in the actual monitoring.  These include the USFS, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and the University of Montana, College of Technology.  Others are welcome to participate.  Monitoring will include initial, measurable and repeatable assessment of biomass available from the projects, so that may be extrapolated to other forest types and densities for later commercial consideration.  Monitoring will also include all inputs such as labor, equipment costs, energy input, and administrative costs, and will include all outputs, such as merchantable forest materials, weight and volume of biomass converted, weight and volume of air pollution and ash produced, volume of electricity produced, and the overall efficiencies and flows of various components of the projects.

Energy Efficiency/Displacement, Rural Economic Development, Environmental Benefits:  The biomass conversion units proponent will use are produced by the Community Power Corporation of Colorado.  These units are rated at about 40% efficiency at converting woody biomass to electricity, depending in part on the moisture content of the incoming feedstock.  The remaining 60% will be waste heat, some of which may be used to dry incoming feedstock to improve conversion efficiency.  All electricity generated and sold will displace, in part, new energy sources using non-renewable resources.  DOE estimates that the woody biomass available in Montana, only from federally-managed lands (not state, tribal or private), only from necessary fire hazard fuels reduction, only at a 40% conversion rate, may be as much as seven gigawatts.  So, if this concept can be proven, 50 or 100 of the desired 100kW units could work forever in Montana forests, cleaning forests, reducing air pollution, employing people, and creating green power.  Cost comparison with existing power production has not been made, because the economic goal of this concept is to reduce the subsidy necessary to conduct fire hazard fuels reduction in overgrown forests, not to compete with the costs of commercial power generation.  Willing consumers may pay more for the green power generated and marketed under this concept, but general electricity consumers will be unaffected.  The distributed generation envisioned by this concept will decrease needed investment in long-distance transmission infrastructure, reduce air pollution, and will aid carbon sequestration.  It should also help reduce long-term costs associated with wildlands fires, including firefighting costs, loss of forest resources, loss of homes, insurance costs, and more.  Since biomass gasification gasses must be combusted in an internal combustion engine, the complete combustion and reduction of air pollution is nearly 100%.  Ashes resulting from the combustion will be broadcast into the forest from which the biomass comes, to keep essential minerals in the forest.

Technical, Management, and Facility Capabilities:  Proponent developed and submitted a successful grant application for the Tanana Chiefs Conference to (then) USDHEW for $1.2 million to develop an emergency patient health care system for the Interior of Alaska, an area roughly the size of Texas, and administered and implemented that program.  At the time, that project was held out by DHEW as a model rural/bush emergency patient care system.  Proponent recently developed a grant application for the Western Montana Fish and Game Association to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a matching grant to implement major improvements to a local sports-shooting facility.  That application has also been spoken of as a model project.  Proponent is a long time resident of Montana and an entrepreneur, with diverse contacts and associations from which to draw collaboration for this project.  Proponent was appointed by Montana Governor Ted Schwinden to the Governor's Advisory Council for Energy Conservation, and has served on other governor's advisory councils.

Other participants will include:  Montana Resources Services, Inc. (project management), U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region and Lolo National Forest (collaboration and test forest parcels), Bonneville Power Administration, NorthWestern Energy and Missoula Electric Co-op (technical, transmission, etc.), University of Montana, College of Technology (monitoring), MCS Environmental (environmental consulting), Career Concepts (human resources), Galusha, Higgins and Galusha (accounting and administration), Community Power (equipment and consulting), Johnson Brothers Contracting, (merchantable timber handling), Spiker Communications (marketing green power), National Center for Appropriate Technology (monitoring, collaboration), Bonneville Environmental Foundation, (broker green power, collaboration), Montana Public Service Commission (legal, regulatory and economic issues), and Montana Department of Environmental Quality (environmental compliance, monitoring).  Proponent has discussed the proposed project with all of these entities, and has verbal commitments to participate.  Contact names and information can be provided upon request.  The three-page pre-application size limit does not allow for a full contact information list, nor letters of commitment.  Since nearly all of the Pilot and Demonstration projects will be conducted in the field, little in the way of facilities will be required.  Proponent will propose rental of a small administrative office for the grant-funded Demonstration Project.

Conclusion:  Under current circumstances, the Demonstration Project cannot be done without grant funds.  With grant funds, proponent can explore, develop and validate the concept of aiding in forest fire-hazard reduction by converting low-value biomass into electricity.  If the concept can be proven, it should achieve all of the following goals:  Reduce the subsidy necessary for forest treatment, reduce air pollution, employ Montana people, provide a long-term, renewable source of electrical power, and reduce wildlands fire impacts.  Once developed, this process may be used by any entity, and in many places in the U.S.

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