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Biomass bummers

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In its first year of operation, the biomass boiler system for Kalispell’s Glacier High School has had breakdowns and mechanical failures that sent clouds of black smoke billowing from the school.

These and other troubles were discussed April 8, when Kalispell school district trustees were briefed on the biomass boiler’s debut. According to Angela Farr, who heads the Fuels for Schools program for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), biomass heating is new to Montana schools, which is partly to blame for the problems. Some of the kinks in the program also have to do with the fuel being used, she says.

In an effort to clear the undergrowth that feeds raging fires, the Forest Service in 2003 began removing large amounts of small-diameter trees from forests. Those trees would typically be burned in slash piles, but the agency wanted to find new ways to dispose of them.

The Fuels for Schools program offered the solution, helping nine Montana schools build biomass boilers that burn small trees for heat. These types of boilers normally use partially processed wood from mills, not whole trees, Farr notes, and that caused some problems. But with time, Farr believes the system will burn whole trees successfully.

Other woes blamed on biomass boilers have allegedly involved human error. Last spring, a Dillon family filed a complaint with the state after their son allegedly burned his feet walking across a pile of heated biomass debris that was spread out near the University of Montana-Western, in Dillon. Apparently, the person in charge of operating that school’s biomass boiler attempted to cool the heated fuel by spreading it outside. The matter is still unresolved.

Alleged incidents like this are extremely rare, biomass proponents say. Burning trees in biomass boilers rather than slash piles provides a practical, earth-friendly way to provide heat, Farr says. It causes far less air pollution and doesn’t waste precious fossil fuels the way traditional heating systems do.

It’s also a lot more economical. Biomass costs about $3.25 per million BTUs, compared with about $10-to-$12 per million BTUs for natural gas, and about $20 per million BTUs for fuel oils, Farr says.

Darlene Schottle, superintendent of Kalispell’s public schools, says she has generally been happy with the system. Aside from the “few bugs,” she says, “it has been clean burning, and has kept the water system and school well heated.”

Even with the mechanical problems, she adds, the school has saved as much as $20,000.

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