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Commissioners tour ethanol plant in Wyoming

by Brandon Roberts & Western News
| December 31, 2008 11:00 PM

A recent excursion to Upton, Wyo., by county commissioners and an economic developer provided insight into potential future markets in Lincoln County.

Commissioner John Konzen, along with freshly elected commissioner Tony Berget, were accompanied by Paul Rumelhart of the Kootenai River Development Council to tour a cellulosic ethanol plant and evaluate the feasibility and implementation of such a facility in Lincoln County. 

“Things work best when economic developers and local governments cooperate,” Rumelhart said.

Much of the work in cellulosic ethanol is currently experimental. However Rumelhart believes the commercialization of this process is critical.

“We want to be on the leading edge of this,” he said. “A community ethanol plant would improve technology, lower production cost and benefit the world in terms of renewable fuels.”

Konzen said there are two areas critical to the county’s role in economic development – planning and putting them in motion.

“There is a philosophy out there that economic development should be left to the private sector,” Konzen said. “I believe the county has to be leaders in this area to help facilitate any perspective idea.”

Konzen said the recent Environmental Protection Agency air quality grade is a concern for the proposed plant. However he believes the assessment is questionable because the study began in 2006, before the EPA-approved wood stoves were required. 

Another concern is securing a sustainable source of biomass from the Forest Service due to their bureaucratic constraints. 

Konzen expressed “cautious optimism” with the idea of an ethanol plant located at the 411-acre industrial district deeded to the KRDC.

“The future is bright,” he said. “The door is not closed to this idea. We must use what we have and use it wisely.”

Berget said the ethanol idea “looks really encouraging.” He noted that the materials used in Wyoming were ponderosa pine from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

“There is better material here with the sugar content in Larch,” Berget said.

He doesn’t see the USFS as a big holdup. He said the utilization of these materials plays into a healthy forest and sees the Regional Advisory Council as a possible avenue as well.

Quinn Carver, natural resource staff officer with the Kootenai National Forest, has previously noted at public meetings that there is a backlog of 18,000 acres in need of thinning. The KNF has a glass ceiling of 50 million board feet removed per year of which 49 million was achieved last year.

The forest grows 400 mbf per year and the proposed plant would require an additional 38 mbf per year.

“The material is up there, it doesn’t have to be just the merchantable timber,” Berget said.

Coupled with the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, a marriage of federal mandates and innovative technology could put Lincoln County on the world’s stage for the development of cellulosic ethanol.

At the signing of HFRA on Dec. 3, 2003, President George Bush said, “… policies have allowed large amounts of underbrush and small trees to collect at the base of our forests … our failure to maintain the forests has had dangerous consequences …”

It is this small-diameter wood, brush and limbs that is the primary energy source for an ethanol plant.

Rumelhart said the infrastructure is in place at the industrial park and the recent Regional Innovation Grant awarded could supplement research to further the fruition of a cellulosic ethanol plant. 

“Properly orchestrated, I believe it can happen here to the benefit of the people of Lincoln County,” Rumelhart said.