Biomass projects under consideration across state |

Biomass projects under consideration across state

A bus that runs on diesel fuel made from soybeans is an example of alternative-energy technology, which is growing in popularity. (Courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

VAIL ” There’s a potential upside to all those trees in the West killed by beetles and drought. It’s called biomass, a catchall term used to describe a variety of ways wood and other biological waste and byproducts can be used to create energy.

In August, the Western Governors Association awarded the state of Colorado $100,000 to pursue biomass projects. It may not sound like much, but as the state and nation face dwindling energy supplies and soaring prices, it’s part of a growing trend to look at solutions.

“We’re hoping it will help the state not only increase awareness of biomass possibilities, but that it’ll get things stimulated,” said Gayle Gordon from the governors’ association, based in Denver. “In theory, it’s a great source of energy that also helps reduce fuel hazards in forests.”

Gordon said the vast numbers of beetle-killed trees in the Eagle County and surrounding forests are a good example of material available for biomass projects. Removing those trees would contribute to the overall health of the forest, she said. The move would also provide energy and economic opportunities in the areas close to the fuel source.

The number of organizations interested in biomass is slowly rising. Partnerships are forming between various entities. Vail Resorts, for example, has plenty of dead trees on its slopes, plus an abundance of wood construction waste.

Luke Cartin, environment coordinator for Vail Resorts, said he’s been in touch with the nonprofit Leadville Institute of Science and Technology, which is at the center of biomass planning in the state.

Summit County is studying the feasibility of heating a new hospital and some county buildings with biomass. According to Steve Hill, special projects manager for the county, wood-chip-fired boilers could be operating as early as next year.

“The principal motivation was to find a way to deal with all the beetle-kill trees and reduce fuel-loading in the forest,” Hill said. “Our study showed it looked feasible from a technical as well as an economic viewpoint.”

In Leadville, the middle school is working with partners to heat its swimming pool using biomass technology.

“We’re pretty far along with that project,” said Robin Littlepage, president of the Leadville Institute. Littlepage said wood chips would be burned to heat water, which would then be circulated to heat the pool.

This technology has been used in states like Vermont and Minnesota for decades. But those states have vibrant timber industries and plenty of scrap wood to make chips and pellets.

It’s not as clear what the capabilities would be in Colorado, which is why the Leadville Institute and its partners are working on a feasibility study.

While acknowledging they don’t have specifics, Littlepage said the best-case scenario for the future would be the institute at the center of a bustling regional business with multiple partners creating everything from wood chips and pellets to biomass fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, along with other products like absorbents to clean pollutants from waterways.

Some day, perhaps, trees from the forest could be converted into biodiesel or electricity, which could power a chairlift or run a snowcat. Larger municipal buildings would be heated using biomass, reducing dependence on expensive and unpredictable fuels like oil and natural gas.

It all depends on whether a model can be created to demonstrate that it’s economically feasible.

Biomass can be used in several ways to produce energy. The examples in Summit County and Leadville represent the more simplistic uses: Combustion converts wood into heat.

Littlepage said the term “burn” doesn’t accurately describe the technology, and it connotes a dirtier form of energy production.

“A lot of new technologies are coming on that can convert wood waste to heat and do it very efficiently with reduced emissions,” said Ed Lewis, senior deputy director of the Colorado Governor’s Office of Energy Management and Conservation.

There’s no comparison, Lewis said, between an old-style fireplace and a modern pellet stove in terms of the pollutants emitted.

But burning wood or “combusting biomass,” as proponents prefer, is only part of the equation. Bob Evans, a chemist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, is working with the Leadville Institute to define opportunities for biomass.

While his background is primarily on the technical side as a scientist, Evans is adamant that any biomass initiative must be commercially viable.

“The trouble with Leadville is the availability of feedstock,” Evans said, referring to materials that can be used in a biomass facility.

There may be a fair amount of wood available in the forests, but nothing on the order of that seen in more heavily wooded areas like the upper Midwest or the Northeast. That means looking at other products, one of which, Evans said, could be absorbent materials for use in mining and water cleanup.

“That’s something that could be of significant economic value,” Evans said, adding that mining, which needs absorbent products, will continue to be a factor in the Colorado economy.

But as fuel costs continue to rise, biomass may become more attractive in the future as an alternate fuel source, he said. Economic incentives from the government can make individual projects and a full-scale facility even more viable.

“It will probably take about $15 million to build a facility,” Evans said. “It’ll require public-private partnerships, also, because so much of the wood comes from public land.”

Ultimately, Evans and Littlepage envision a Leadville facility that will serve the surrounding communities and act as a model for other such installations across the state and country.

“The cost is high because we’d design it as a world-class facility,” Evans said. In addition to being a clearing house for things like wood chips and pellets and absorbents, it would be a refinery for biofuels. Education would also be part of the mission.

Addressing the seeming irony that the fuels of the future bear a strong resemblance to those of the past, Evans said that 40 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to electricity on a regular basis.

“It’s not just the caveman; those people, their primary supply of fuel is wood,” he said. “Petroleum is a finite resource, so it’s ironic or comforting that you can grow what you need.”

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