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A Green Power House Rises in Cellulose Valley: How the Flathead Valley is Helping Fund Its Own New Energy Economy

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A Green Power House Grows in Cellulose Valley [1]

It is February in Montana, with nighttime temperatures dropping to around 20 F, but on this sunny morning, it is closer to Hawaii in the soaring interior of Algae Aqua-Culture Technology's Green Power House (TM). Standing over 40 feet high, the spaceship-like building is filled with light from its four, clear polycarbonate walls that taper upward toward a pagoda-like cupola. On its concrete floor are eight algae ponds, arranged like petals of a flower around most of its 5000 square foot floor space, and within these ponds grow the blue-green algae, (actually cyanobacteria), that harvest the nitrogen and carbon dioxide available in such abundance from the sky and from the nearby industrial processes of a functioning lumber mill--the F. H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company (Stoltze). But what is rising here is not just a standard greenhouse, but an Earth House, a place where the struggling timber industry may find a new future by growing not just trees for lumber, but new soil grown from the residual biomass of its timber operations--new earth and organic soil amendments that will help recarbonize the carbon depleted soils of the Earth--all the while removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and helping industries to profitably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

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Green Power House at Sunset by Michael Smith, AACT

F. H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company (Stoltze) has been a fixture in the Flathead Valley for more than 100 years. A family owned firm, they've thoughtfully stewarded their lands and employees, growing trees the right way, and harvesting them in good time. With a view to their long-term future, however, they are always seeking innovations that will help them grow and thrive in a changing economy. At their mill site between the towns of Columbia Falls and Whitefish, they have recently provided major assistance to a small, new, cutting-edge business, Algae Aqua-Culture Technology (AACT), that is racing to return Stoltze and the forest industry to the forefront of technological innovation. "The AACT technology is clearly one of the most promising opportunities to help build, preserve, and diversify Montana's forest products industry economic strength in the renewable energy field," said Chuck Roady, Stoltze Lumber VP. (Stoltze has been very active in their own right, and Stoltze has just signed an agreement with Flathead Electric Cooperative to provide 2.5 Megawatts of power to the local power grid with a wood-fired, biomass generator.)

Aerial View Green Power House and Stoltze Lumber by AACT

AACT has almost completed an innovative wood chip to energy and fertilizer processing plant that will initially employ about 9 people. As stated in a July, 2011 issue of BioCycle Magazine, AACT's proprietary process uses a greenhouse-based algae growth system and an anaerobic biodigester to transform a blend of the wood waste and algae into large amounts of highly valuable organic fertilizer and soil amendment. It will also produce high-value methane for power generation. Beyond that, the Green Power House is a wonderful antidote to Montana winters, since it provides a Maui-like, moist, year-round, low energy cost, off-grid, fossil-fuel-free, growing solution for high value organic crops.

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AACT's Green Power House process offers an entirely new profit center to the forest and agriculture industries--make money year-round by "growing" new soil. AACT's process has already attracted the interest of the U.S Department of Commerce, and AACT was one of five small- to medium- sized U.S. companies featured at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Event in Honolulu.

This is the story of how one set of the dreamers and doers in Western Montana's Flathead Valley are helping to pave a new future for Montana's "Cellulose Valley." It is a dream born out of recognition that there has to be a better way to produce jobs and energy--a better way that replenishes the Earth and sustains the natural resources we so depend on. The story of AACT is an example of the growing potential to re-power the Flathead for a new energy economy.

AACT was started by "dreamers" Paul Stelter, co-owner of Alameda's Hot Springs Retreat and its geothermal hot water wells, as well as horticulturist Michael Holecek and Michael Smith, an animation, physical simulation, artificial intelligence and computer modeling engineer. The three experimented for a year with growing algae from Alameda's geothermal wells, but eventually realized the wells didn't have enough hot water to run a major biofuel production operation.

At about this time I met Stelter, Smith, and Holecek. In trading stories of our business efforts, Holecek noted that algae can also be converted into fertilizer. This struck a chord. After sharing my background having grown up in a timber industry family and having seen the zealous desire farmers and foresters had for their piece of the renewable energy revolution, the exciting realization for the partners was that generating both fertilizer and energy from waste cellulose and algae could be the value added revenue stream that was desperately needed by timber companies and farmers alike. Shortly thereafter in 2009, Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead, as the Director of the three-day conference on Re-Powering the Flathead for a New Energy Economy, introduced Smith to Stoltze's Chuck Roady and Paul McKenzie. The three eventually agreed that the innovative technologies that AACT was developing might allow Stoltze to convert its waste wood resources into new heat and energy resources for its plant and new product lines that would be less affected by boom-and-bust economics.

Diagram of AACT Technology by Algae Aqua-Culture Technology

But building a new technology business is an act of personal commitment and energy that few can ever imagine. The story of AACT's development reveals another important component of the almost magical chemistry of becoming a successful business in this economy--the attraction of local investors and volunteers. It's that "if you build it they will come" kind of magic that has been so essential to AACT's success to date. Smith, who has basically worked day and night on the project since late 2008, says there's something going on here that he's never experienced before, "I've worked many high tech projects, including several for NASA, Intel, Disney, and Electronic Arts, but this is by far the most fulfilling and enriching project I've ever worked on, and the basis of that is the many, many people who have stepped to the plate and contributed freely of their time, dollars, and efforts to this amazing process."

The image of "players" (in this case volunteers and investors) emerging from the forest, as opposed to the cornfields of the movie "Field of Dreams," better fits the Flathead. And from this forest image a truly amazing team of players has emerged to move the AACT partnership forward. Early to come were local individual investors like Joan Shoemaker and Brad Oen, who found their way to the project and put significant chunks of their personal savings into it. Brad Oen points out: "This is a great project. I want it to succeed, and that's more important than holding on to my dwindling retirement dollars."

Others including Dick Swope, a retired Inspector General of the Air Force, living in the Flathead, became heavily involved. Swope was appointed AACT's Chairman of the Board in February 2009 [2]. Robin Kelson, a botanist, ecologist and former Boston intellectual property rights attorney, has become a full-time contributor because, she says, the project has such huge potential to sustainably generate renewable sources for the planet's depleted fuel, soil, water and food.

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In late 2010, Michael Smith and I, aided by the business insights of Dick Swope and Whitefish resident John Murdock, were able to capture a highly competitive Recovery Act grant awarded by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, (with vetting for the grant by the DOE program environment manager under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), headquartered at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado). From that incredible jumpstart  the now almost-completed, eight-sided, energy and fertilizer production plant began its rise. 

Again, the construction phase of the project relied on the amazing and largely volunteer help of many. To name just a few, given space limitations, Michael's do-everything partner, Diane Carter; master carpenter Sean Carter, who, on his own time, manifested Smith's vision and built the smaller project demonstration building in 2010; business consultant Adam de Yong, who is now providing extensive input into the business' structure and documentation; concrete artisan Rex Smith and his sons, who have been traveling from Salt Lake to provide the concrete work; and entomologist Evan Sugden, who paid his own way to Hawaii to meet with the many interested governmental and private parties there--as well as the many dedicated electronics, construction, materials and greenhouse specialists who, though unnamed, are profoundly central to this success story.

Janet Morrow, another early investor in the project, is a community builder and co-producer of the acclaimed documentary film, Fuel. She sees her investment as an investment in a new, renewable, "locally controlled," Flathead community. She goes on to explain that communities that are mostly dependent on extraction cannot control their economic fortunes, since they get low value for their raw material exports, and then have to pay dearly for the manufactured goods finished elsewhere and then re-imported at a premium. Morrow said "In healthy economies, dollars continue to circulate locally as local producers and consumers exchange dollars many times, while an extraction economy sends those dollars quickly and permanently elsewhere." Morrow emphasized that this return to local investment and control needs to become viral. "People need to move beyond thinking they must fight over dividing a limited pie. Instead, they need to develop technologies that expand the pie so that all may be profitably employed and nourished."

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Steve Corrick is an investor/developer of real estate, biomass-based renewable energy and soil technologies, and a long-time fighter for paper-ballot-based elections and for sustainable use and renewal of the world's bioresources.

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