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Posted: June 01, 2009

Too much beetle wood ain’t enough

Wood from beetle-killed trees can be used as fuel, yet biomass heating systems require more wood than even Colorado’s 1.5 million acres of infected lodgepole pines could provide for long-term use

Allen Best

In Vail, the specter of dead and dying lodgepole pine trees presents both adversity and opportunity. Mountain bark beetles, always present in forests but in epidemic proportions since 1996, have turned adjacent slopes the color of cheaply dyed hair, the needles of dying trees a dull red verging on orange.

Worried about public reaction, town officials several years ago even considered using Photoshop to remove the dying trees from marketing materials.

But even before the full trauma of forest change was evident, a small delegation had returned from the Alps convinced that the fading forest provided a means to achieve greater self-sufficiency. In a small Austrian ski town called Lech, Vail’s representatives studied the village’s use of wood in a centralized biomass steam-heating system. Why, they wondered, couldn’t the beetle-killed trees be used to heat Vail’s downtown streets and buildings?

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Many others in Colorado have had similar thoughts after seeing some of the 2 million affected acres. Foresters predict 95 percent of Colorado’s lodgepole pines will be dead or dying within four years. The epicenter is on the Western Slope, just north of the Eisenhower Tunnel. However, beetles have now flown across the Continental Divide.

Entomologists expect beetles to begin spreading within several years through the ponderosa pine forests in the foothills west of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.

The beetle epidemic arrived in full force just as businesses and communities began to rethink the energy infrastructure in a new, increasingly carbon-constrained world. Beetle-killed forests merely served as the visual cue. Several places — including a school in Oak Creek, a recreation center in Fairplay and a giant research laboratory in Golden — have begun burning woody biomass for heat. One utility, in Cañon City, already uses wood to produce electricity, and others in Colorado Springs and Granby are taking a hard look. State officials report dozens of projects, from Fort Collins to the Four Corners, that propose to burn wood to produce heat, electricity or both.

These projects testify to a welling enthusiasm to create more local, sustainable heating operations. But government officials, entrepreneurs and analysts also caution that despite all the beetle-infested trees, not enough wood may be available for long-term, sustained operations. Rangeview, a biomass producer based in Westminster, abandoned plans for a plant near Denver and instead sited it in Georgia.

“Colorado biomass is more suited for smaller-scale production, just because of the availability of wood and how much we generate per acre,” says Ravi Malhotra, founder and chairman of Lakewood-based iCAST, which stands for International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology.

Stacey Simms, biofuels and local fuels program manager for the Governor’s Energy Office, concurs. “Projects are really defined by what is available in the local community, in terms of feedstock,” she says. “People will look over a hillside and see a lot of red trees, but they don’t understand the cost of getting the wood out or the issue of who manages the forest,” she adds.

Not all that wood is available, she says. “It could be protected under U.S. Forest Service administration. Or it could just be impossible to get out. I am not a forest expert, and don’t pretend to be one, but it seems that where biomass really fits in well is in long-term sustainability, beyond the bark beetle epidemic, by working with local communities in terms of delivering wood from the local urban-wildland interface.”
Low-priced fossil fuels pose a major second barrier to biomass projects. Colorado has vast quantities of both natural gas and coal, which translates into low prices compared to most other parts of the country. “We’re living in a bubble,” Simms says.

Energy engineers measure heat in million British thermal units. Coal delivers that much heat cheaply, at $1 to $1.50 when delivered to a power plant in Colorado Springs. Natural gas prices fluctuate more. From $13.50 last July the price plummeted to $3.50 by late winter. Propane runs far more expensive, at about $20. In comparison, wood pellets run about $10 for an equivalent amount of heat.

“Where these projects make a whole lot of sense penciling out is displacing propane. There we can see a return on investment in very, very quick order, in sometimes just a year and a half or two years,” Simms says. “Natural gas is the one where we really dull our pencils.”

The recreation center at Fairplay illustrates that rapid payback. Propane for heating the boiler has doubled in the last three years. A new biomass boiler is expected to cut the need for propane by 80 percent, says Leslie Larocque, business development manager in the Rocky Mountain region for McKinstry, an energy performance contracting company. Combined with measures to improve energy efficiency at the rec center, the energy bill is expected to decline 47 percent.

Flawless and flaws

Still, woody biomass even now competes favorably with natural gas. Gilpin County in 2007 completed a 21,000-square-foot road and bridge facility several miles north of Central City. The garage is heated with a state-of-the-art Messersmith biomass boiler system that distributes the radiant heat through the floor. Logs – both beetle-killed and others – are delivered to the site where they are mashed into chips. “It has been an almost flawless operation,” says Bill Paulman, facilities manager for Gilpin County.

Through the first 11 months of 2008, the wood-burning system saved the county government $29,000 compared to the costs for burning natural gas, Paulman says. A study done in advance estimated a payback of the boiler system and other energy conserving technology at 19 years. However, wood has cost less and natural gas more than was assumed.

Last November, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden began operation of a central biomass boiler for heating 400,000 square feet of building space. It is not a research experiment, energy engineer Chris Gaul stresses.

“This wasn’t built with tax dollars, but with third-party financing – and a debt,” Gaul says. “So there is a business case to support it. It’s not something that we just indulged in ourselves. It wasn’t built as a research project. The researchers aren’t really too interested in it. It was built by the site operations group, and built to heat the place reliably. It had to pay for itself.”

Despite a few glitches, it has. The system was designed to displace 80 percent of NREL’s annual consumption of natural gas. “Finding a fuel supply, setting up an infrastructure, is key to making a project work,” Gaul says. NREL’s boiler needs 4,000 tons of wood per year. Given that a thinning of a forest will produce 18 to 20 tons per acre, that’s a requirement of roughly 200 acres.

It takes 150 to 200 truck loads per year to meet the needs of NREL’s wood-burning plant. All of the wood on a recent delivery came from beetle-killed forests, although wood from Denver’s forests also could be used. A biomass project for heating requires more thought and attention than a typical natural gas-fueled plant, Gaul says. Support must come from the top leadership.

Quality of wood is an issue. Wood sullied by dirt or even pine needles can foul or even stop a biomass operation, as was the case at Nederland, a town west of Boulder, several years ago. More success has been reported in Longmont, where Boulder County uses wood to heat five buildings.

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In Oak Creek, south of Steamboat Springs, wood pellets now heat a middle school that until last year was heated by coal. The old coal boiler required servicing from early morning until late night, and when the existing boiler cracked, school officials called in McKinstry, the energy performance contractor, to study options. A boiler heated by pellets manufactured in Kremmling, about 50 miles away, penciled out best. The pellets, which are made from beetle-killed wood, can be delivered by the truckload. The town has no natural gas. Even in Oak Creek, a town founded because of its deposits of coal, coal has become passé.

Colorado now has two large pellet-manufacturing factories, Walden-based Rocky Mountain Pellet Co. and Kremmling-based Confluence Energy. Confluence began operations last June, operating round the clock, but still only at two-thirds capacity. The factory processes more than 200 tons of wood daily. Logs are chipped, the chips heated to dry them out, and then pressed into pellets that look like rabbit droppings.

The 40-pound bags are branded under five different names and sold in hardware, feed and other stores from Nevada to Pennsylvania. Logs — nearly all beetle-killed — are hauled to the factory from roughly a 60-mile radius. Jordan Colling, logistics manager for Confluence Energy, says the company expects to have enough wood, all of it the result of beetle kill, to sustain pellet-making operations for 25 to 30 years.

Making electricity

Woody biomass produces fewer pollutants than burning coal. A well-operated boiler will produce no smoke. It will produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, but wood decaying on a forest floor would do so anyway. In other words, the fuel is carbon neutral. Coal or natural gas unleashes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that had been sequestered underground.

This carbon neutrality may result in some money being poured into biomass projects to offset the emissions from coal-fired power plants if, for example, federal cap-and-trade legislation is enacted. Such biomass projects could also benefit from voluntary offsets being doled out by the new Colorado Carbon Fund.

Susan Innis, the fund manager, singles out uncommon energy systems such as anaerobic digesters, solar thermal and coal-mine methane-capture projects as most likely to get money. “But everything is on the table,” she says.

Biomass made sense even before concerns about greenhouse gas emissions kicked in or before the current pine beetle epidemic. Black Hills Energy’s coal-fired plant in Cañon City has used wood from surrounding federal Bureau of Land Management property since 1999. Kevin Hall, plant manager, estimated that on a recent day the wood delivered enough electricity to meet the needs of 2,000 homes in the service district between Cripple Creek, Westcliffe and Rocky Ford.

But renewable energy portfolio standards have now added a new layer of economics to woody biomass. That standard in Colorado, which requires municipal power suppliers to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, has spurred Colorado Springs to plan a $7 million to $10 million investment in biomass, capable of delivering about 3 percent of total electrical production. Unlike wind, which is intermittent, woody biomass can be used to produce electricity whenever it’s needed, points out Drew Rankin, general manager of energy supply for Colorado Springs. Wood would be drawn from around Woodland Park, among other locations.

Vail’s high hopes

Vail has high hopes of transforming trees from the surrounding mountains into both heat and electricity. A proposal is now being shaped for a combined heat and power plant at the town’s public works facility about a mile from the town core. The heat sent through a loop could be used to warm municipal buildings and several major buildings, possibly including the hospital, hotels and other properties, but also melt snow on public walkways. In summer, town staffers say, the steam heat could produce 40 or even 50 megawatts of electricity. Holy Cross Energy, an electrical co-op, has been involved in the planning.

Federal help will be crucial. Vail town staff members hope to get their biomass vision anointed as a demonstration project, with the federal government picking up 50 percent of the front-end costs, says Kristen Bertuglia, the town’s environmental sustainability coordinator. The federal stimulus package has earmarked more than $800 million nationally for biomass. Colorado’s share of that is unknown. But almost as important is a commitment for a long-term supply of wood from federal lands. Town officials hope for at least 10-year and better yet 20-year commitments of wood supply.

“Without a long-term commitment, I don’t think it will work,” says Bill Carlson, the town’s environmental health officer. In other words, the Vail project still faces major barriers. The town council there hasn’t even signed off on it. And the federal government – key to the project – still has sent no checks, and may never do so.

But like much of Colorado, Vail 20 years ago typically bristled at timber sales. Now, greater appreciation of local sustainability has combined with a new awareness of the consequences of global greenhouse gases. From that new perspective, woody biomass is a silver lining in the storm of bark beetles.

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