Darby Schools received a woodchip heating system in 2003. Rick Scheele, facilities manager for the Darby schools, shows off the wood firebox | Photo Courtesy USFS Fuels for Schools, Dave Atkins
In parts of this country, wood seems like the outsider in the biomass family. New ethanol plants that grind down millions of bushels of corn in the Midwest and breakthroughs in algae along the coasts always garner the most attention. But in states like Montana, a place with over 70 million acres of forest, wood is the biofuel of choice.
Every year, loggers thin forests out to reduce wildfire hazards, generating several thousand tons of wood, much of which is not suitable for saw logs. This leftover material may be unsuitable to sell commercially, but to the United States Forest Service (USFS), it makes for perfect fuel.
"This otherwise low-valued material was seen as a great resource for local energy,” says Julie Kies, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s biomass utilization program.
It all started after a wildfire in Bitterroot Valley of Montana in 2000. Recognizing the benefits of thinning the forests to mitigate wildfire hazards, the cost of forest thinning, and the even higher costs of wildfire suppression, local Bitterroot Valley residents worked with the USFS to explore ways to address the situation.
“People agreed, ‘We need to find ways to make fire hazard reduction cheaper’,” Julie says. “They were hoping that purchasing the material [generated from thinning] might offset the cost for removing the trees.”
So in 2003, the USFS created the Fuels for Schools program. The plan was straightforward: Take the unsellable wood that loggers gather and process it into chips that can be used in biomass boilers to heat school buildings.
Launched in 2003 at a school district in Darby, Mont., the Fuels for School program now involves fifteen schools, one university, one landfill and two prisons in the region, which includes Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah.
The projects use material that is more than 50 percent cheaper than fuel oil, and help boost the region’s struggling wood-products industry.
Darby, a town of 1,000 with 365 students, received a 3 million btu/hr woodchip system that supplies all of the buildings’ heating supply.
"For a school system, it’s the dollar savings,” says Rick Scheele, facilities manager for the Darby schools and also the town mayor. “Here in Darby, we did not have natural gas, so we were burning No. 2 diesel fuel oil. That type of fuel last year would have cost $200,000. That’s four teachers’ salaries.”
But now the school district is only spending about $40,000 a year on wood chips, which are stockpiled underground. Depending on the price of fuel, the school district has been saving up to $160,000 a year.
The schools get their wood chips from a variety of sources. Leftovers from forest thinning still fuels their boilers, but removed trees killed by the nefarious pine beetle and trees removed for roadway construction also supply fuel.
Darby burns about 1,000 tons of wood chips a year to heat the elementary, middle and high schools.
Rick is now the go-to guy for school biomass heating plants, consulting people on the implementation process and even giving tours (about 1,000 people have come to Darby to check out their system, Rick says).
“Darby was a great pilot project, proving that local wood energy was not only doable, but could be highly successful. The success of the Darby School project spearheaded the expansion of small-scale wood energy projects across the region,” Julie says.
All the programs are considered a success because it is saving the schools money and helping out the local economies.
“Loggers are happy because they have a place to take this stuff,” Rick says. “And you are using the wood as a renewable resource for your energy—which is always a good thing.”