What’s cooler than a portable pellet mill?

Posted by Dylan Kruse on June 24, 2014

Biomass energy is heating up in eastern Idaho

Commander Chassis is using small mills and a portable storage silo to process waste biomass into wood pellets.

The snow covered portable pellet mill (yes it snows in Idaho in the late spring) was just one display of ingenuity we saw earlier this June at Lost Trail Powder Mountain, a ski area straddling the Idaho-Montana border. Charlie Thornton and his team at Commander Chassis are using three different small mill machines and a portable storage silo to process small diameter logs and wood waste into wood pellets. Charlie is invited to forest restoration sites after the snow melts and before the fire season begins to collect the wood waste and small logs. The pellets they produce for wood heat improve forest health, and if all goes to plan, will create much needed jobs in the area.

On June 17-18, 2014 Sustainable Northwest hosted the Eastern Idaho Biomass Energy Workshop for over 50 local people interested in learning more about what biomass can do for their communities. The workshop is part of our commitment to the Idaho Statewide Wood Energy Team (SWET), a collaborative agency, business, and non-profit effort to develop biomass clusters that complement forest restoration activities in Idaho. Examples include projects that can provide heat and power to schools, hospitals, commercial buildings and industrial facilities. Attendees included the Lemhi Economic Development Association, the U.S. Forest Service, boiler engineers, operators and developers, pellet manufacturers, community based non-profits, Lost Trail Ski Area owners, the Lemhi Forest Restoration Group, local government and school districts, and biomass project developers. 

At the workshop, we discussed three key projects in Eastern Idaho that are good candidates for conversion to biomass boilers: Salmon High School, which currently uses propane, a shared facility for Challis High School and Elementary School, which use electricity, and a combined heat and power unit for heating the lodge and powering the lifts at Lost Trail. Currently the ski area uses 20,000 gallons of diesel oil annually. Other presentations covered how projects are built, what makes them successful, why fuel supply is so critical, and lessons learned from actual case studies across the western U.S.

Following the workshop we traveled north on Highway 93 to Darby, Montana and passed through landscape scarred by August 2000 forest fires. The destination was one of the most successful wood chip boiler systems in the nation. Rick Scheele, Darby School District Boiler Operator and former town mayor, is heating the high school with locally sourced wood chips. Last year the school saved over $180,000 on its heating bill by using about 1,000 tons of wood chips instead of fuel oil to heat the campus. Rick has led the evolution of the project that originally purchased chips, but advanced to making their own to increase energy savings and take control of the supply chain. Years of heat savings allowed the school district to purchase a chipper, a dump truck and lease land to store up to five years of wood supply. These in-house innovations have saved the school another $20,000 a year in supply, adding to the bottom line that sets an example for other schools and businesses in the area. Local project champions, community support, access to flexible financing, and a local and sustainable wood supply from forest restoration projects designed to prevent extreme wildfire have all been key ingredients to the project’s success. 

Idaho already has four biomass boilers like the one in Darby operating in school districts in the western and northern parts of the state. Now it’s time for eastern Idaho to have an example of its own. To get prospective projects built, in July the Idaho SWET will be soliciting proposals for feasibility studies to analyze which biomass projects are suitable for conversion. Sustainable Northwest will help community leaders apply for these grants, lead a fuel supply study to identify a long-term sustainable supply of wood in the region to feed the boilers, and look at existing and innovative ways to finance these systems. Wood heat and power provides local energy savings, jobs, and a full circle of benefit that connects the community to the land and improves forest health. We’re looking forward to making biomass the talk of the town all across Idaho.

Click here to learn more about the Idaho Statewide Wood Energy Team