Beetle-killed trees: Opportunities abound
December 10, 2006
FRISCO – The mountain pine beetles are here and they really can’t be stopped. What, then, can be done to make some lemonade out of the many lemons the destructive critters have visited upon our forests?Well, for one thing, all those lodgepole pine trees the beetles are killing represent a rich vein of biomass – or, OK, “wood” – which, if it can be collected and transported to facilities that can cleanly burn them, make for a promising source of renewable energy. At a forum co-hosted by U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar Friday in Frisco, a standing-room-only crowd of local politicians joined representatives of various industry and government agencies and a good many curious citizens to explore the biomass option as well as ways to take some of the felled trees and get them to market as lumber.Salazar, who was still in Washington for the remaining days of the lame-duck congressional session, addressed the crowd via telephone. He called the mountain pine beetle problem a “potential Katrina of the West,” alluding to the increased amount of dead trees in the forests paired with a warmer climate and future droughts that could some day result in a conflagration of biblical proportions.Friday, an array of experts whipped through a variety of presentations, with an emphasis on the biomass solution. The idea is a simple one: removing the dead trees reduces the amount of fuel lining the forest floor, and it can be used in small energy facilities to generate heat or electricity. Summit County is planning a facility on its County Commons property, which would consume 5,000 tons of wood chips annually and could provide up to 90 percent of the energy needed for the hospital campus and some county buildings. Gilpin County is set to build a similar facility in 2007, and Boulder County has had one in place for about a year.Many a biomass pilgrim has made his way to Boulder in the past year, according to the forum’s panelists. There, they’ve seen a state-of-the-art central heating plant that services about 95,000 square feet of inside space using 650 tons of wood chips annually from the nearby forest. The emissions from the plant are mostly just steam, and the facility is expected to pay for itself through energy savings in a decade or two.ChallengesThere are a couple of bumps in the road to biomass-produced energy. One is public perception, as not everyone seems to get the idea. Gilpin County Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson said she erred by not getting better community by-in for the project.”About one third of people think it’s a great idea, another group don’t quite understand it and then another third say ‘why bother?'” Nicholson said. “The lesson is that you really need to bring the community along.”Mike Ruffatto of the North American Power Group – which operates for-profit biomass facilities in several states – pointed out that wood chips are bulky and tough to transport, meaning that biomass facilities aren’t very efficient unless they’re built within 50 miles or so of the fuel source.Another challenge is getting chips that are relatively clean and uniform in size, according to Therese Glowacki, who oversees the Boulder facility.”Chip quality is key,” she said, adding that chips with too much dirt or debris can gum-up the auger that feeds the material into the boiler, while wood that’s too moist reduces the amount of energy produced.’Social license’For anyone considering a biomass facility, though, creating a process for getting the fuel is the first order of business, and when working in the national forest, that’s not always easy. The public has been squeamish about forest thinning practices in the past, but that seems to be changing, according to U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Rick Cables.”Many people support intervention now,” he said. “I think we have more social license than we’ve ever seen, plus a lot of cooperation between the counties, the state and other players. We’ve got more tools than ever.”Brian Lloyd, the acting District Ranger for the Eagle and Holy Cross Ranger Districts, said it’s not entirely clear how those access questions can be worked out in the Vail area.”We do have issues with roadless areas, lynx habitat and other things,” said Lloyd, who recently took over the District Ranger position from Cal Wettstein. “I’m not sure how we can handle it all, but I hope we can go forward and create some benefits for the Vail Valley.”Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon, also at the Frisco forum, said the county hopes to build a small biomass facility to provide energy for the new road and bridge building – which he said will add another $100,000 to its cost.”We need to be more proactive in biomass, and we need to look at a lot of other areas,” Runyon said. That, he said, includes working with private developers and the Eagle County School District on major projects that could have alternative energy as part of their design.”It makes sense to do it in new buildings, because it’s hard to retrofit,” he said.Runyon also pointed to the wallboard plant in Gypsum – which he said spends $1 million a month on natural gas – as a candidate for using alternative energy.”Even if they saved 20 percent, that would be a lot,” he said. “But the big thing is a guaranty of supply (of biomass).”Lloyd said he was encouraged by the thinking going on at the forum, and that public perception is changing.”People used to think it was just like a big fireplace,” he said of biomass energy. “But the technology has really changed, with much lower emissions. It’s very cool, but it’s just one part of it – there’s solar, wind energy. It adds up over time.”The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.