COLUMBIA—Starting next fall, up to a quarter of MU’s energy will come from the trees of Missouri.
Foster Brothers, a wood products company in Auxvasse, will supply 100,000 tons of wood chips yearly for a new wood-burning boiler under construction at the power plant.
The six-year contract with Foster Bros. has been described as a national model because it includes conditions designed to protect the health of the Missouri forests that will be supplying the wood.
Missouri has no logging restrictions, and several other wood-fueled power plants in the works across Missouri would put additional pressure on timber resources.
It’s not the first time Missouri forests have faced the potential for a dramatic increase in timber cutting. In 1997, two chip mills were built in southeastern Missouri to grind up large quantities of wood for the manufacture of paper and other products. State officials put a hold on any new chip mills to keep clear-cutting and deforestation in check.
Hank Stelzer, an MU Extension forestry professor who helped develop the contract for wood to fuel the MU plant, believes these same issues could emerge with the wood-powered electricity industry.
“Just take the chip mill reports and take out the word chip mill and replace it with bioenergy, and the same issues are there,” Stelzer said.
The MU boiler joins other potential proposals for wood-fueled power plants at Perryville, Viburnum, Ellington and Fort Leonard Wood, said Hank Dorst, a member of a watchdog environmental group called Mark Twain Forest Watchers. Each of these plants would require between 100,000 and 400,000 tons of wood waste yearly.
Dorst said MU’s contract with Foster Bros. was an opportunity to set the tone for responsible timber cutting.
"MU is in a position to lead the way in this industry, especially in the sourcing of wood from forests," he said.
The process of using wood to supply steam for heat or electricity isn’t unprecedented in the Midwest, but the size and the sourcing of the MU boiler are, Stelzer said.
MU’s wood-burning boiler will replace an older coal burner and will join four other boilers that can burn both coal and a small percentage of "blended biomass," a mixture of grasses and woody materials. Previously, these boilers have used up to 6,000 tons of wood a year. The power plant also uses one natural gas-fired boiler.
The new boiler will be replacing 25 percent of MU's coal consumption, and Gregg Coffin, superintendent of the MU power plant, expects it will supply between 20 and 25 percent of MU's yearly heat and electricity demands.
The MU Sustainability Office has calculated that the new boiler will allow MU to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent by 2015, Coffin said.
Steve Foster, co-owner of Foster Bros., said his company will pull nearly 90 percent of the required wood from sawmill residues, secondary mills such as furniture plants and pallet builders, as well as “right-of-ways” waste such as tree trimming along state roads.
The other 10 percent will come from the discarded tops of logged trees and thinning projects that target diseased or undesirable trees in a managed forest. Foster expects to draw all this logging debris from within 50 miles of Columbia.
In an effort to avoid environmentally damaging practices such as clear-cutting that an increased market for wood waste could encourage, Foster Bros. has agreed to a number of conditions on the wood it will supply from Missouri forests:
- Before logging, a professional forester will review plans to help ensure that no clear-cutting will occur. The forester will also conduct on-site inspections of a randomly-selected 25 percent of the logging sites.
- At least one member of the logging crew must have completed a Missouri Forest Products Association program that teaches responsible timber cutting.
- Foster Bros. will not use sawmills that take any wood from logging efforts that clear all the high-value wood and leave only undesirable trees, such as invasive species and diseased wood.
“Right now, the sustainable harvest measures that the University has implemented that will be added to the contract regarding the biomass supplier are a national model,” said Peter Becker, a research coordinator with the Eastern Ozark Forestry Council who advocated for the inclusion of the conditions.
Becker represents the Eastern Ozark Forestry Council on the Missouri Forest Resources Advisory Council, a coalition of forest groups and conservation-minded organizations that was instrumental in the push to protect Missouri forests.
Both Becker and Stelzer admire MU’s acceptance of the conditions, especially given the additional costs.
"The power plant could easily have said, 'No, we're not going to do it this way," Stelzer said. "I can't say enough for them, Gregg and the whole team over there. It's not the way business is usually done."
Purchase and construction of the boiler and its infrastructure will cost about $75 million, and Stelzer estimated that enforcing the restrictions will cost MU an additional $6,000 to $10,000 a year.
'It's all we've ever done'
Foster Bros., with its headquarters 30 miles from Columbia, has been in the wood products business since the early 1930s. The firm has five facilities in Missouri that chip waste wood, works with 200 to 300 suppliers and already produces between 400,000 to 500,000 tons of wood products each year.
After receiving bids from three Missouri companies and one in Florida, MU decided on Foster Bros.
“It was not a difficult selection,” Coffin said.
Steve Foster and his brother, Jay Foster, knew they were the right company for the job as soon as they saw the notice sent to potential bidders more than a year ago.
“We have more experience, more equipment, more know-how than anyone else in the state," Foster said. "It’s all we’ve ever done.”
Working with MU means the company will have to increase its wood products production by about 20 percent. Foster believes his company can attract additional logging residues by offering a higher price than many sellers receive now.
“Hopefully we can afford to pay a little more,” he said. “With a steady market, you can afford to pay more.”
Some of the waste wood will come from existing supplies that will be diverted from locations farther from Auxvasse than Columbia, in particular a Foster Bros. facility in St. Louis.
“If economics says it’s better to send them to Columbia than to the current market, which is farther away, we will,” Foster said.
The wood chips will be trucked in six days a week from Auxvasse. Coffin compared this distance to the 240-mile trip the power plant’s coal supplies make from southern Illinois five days a week.
“It’s significantly less transportation,” he said. “It’s less wear and tear on the state highways and less diesel.”
Foster expects to start making small deliveries to MU in late spring for the coal burners that can co-fire with woody biomass. In the fall of 2012, Foster Bros. will begin full-sized deliveries for the new biomass boiler.
Foster said he wasn't put off by restrictions in the contract.
“They covered all their bases,” he said. “I think the citizens of Missouri should be proud. It’s a first, in many respects, and I think it’ll work great.”