Local consortium fired up about biomass | AspenTimes.com

Local consortium fired up about biomass

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesDead trees like these, which were cut on Aspen Mountain this summer, are part of the area's available biomass, according to a consortium that has studied the feasibility of using biomass as an energy source.

ASPEN – The dead trees the beetle epidemic left around Colorado are but one source of biomass – a renewable energy source that exists in sufficient quantity to use in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to a group of area nonprofits that spent more than a year studying its viability.

The Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium presented its findings at a press conference Monday at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. An afternoon-long Regional Biomass Summit (see below) is planned for Wednesday in Carbondale to present the consortium’s conclusions to the public and delve into the opportunities presented by biomass, and obstacles to its use.

The consortium formed in May 2010 and obtained a $19,320 grant from the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office to explore the local feasibility of biomass. The funds were leveraged to conduct a study that cost about $100,000 – a sum that includes in-kind work by consortium members. Outside consultants also worked on the effort.

The study assessed the local availability of biomass – biological material that is typically plant-based, coming from living or recently living plants. It can include everything from dead trees in the national forest to urban tree trimmings, food waste and crops grown specifically as biomass. It also assessed the technology available to convert biomass into energy – heat, electricity or both – and whether it can be used locally without doing more harm than good.

The latter, explained John Bennett, executive director of consortium member For the Forest, meant determining whether the use of local biomass sources would mean less carbon going into the atmosphere. The goal is a net reduction in greenhouse gases and a net gain in energy production.

“If it takes a fleet of 400 diesel trucks running around Colorado to deliver that biomass to you, you haven’t done any good at the end of the day,” Bennett said.

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According to the consortium’s findings, biomass makes sense as a heat source, but there isn’t enough available locally to generate electricity with it.

There are about 6,000 tons of dry wood available annually in the greater Roaring Fork Valley, including a stretch of the Colorado River Valley from Gypsum to Rifle, Bennett said. That includes trees and construction waste. If the Forest Service had funds to pursue various management and habitat projects, there would be more wood available, and the agency has indicated an interest in supplying biomass, he added.

In a “gasification” process using biomass, wood is burned in a low-oxygen atmosphere, producing methane, which can be burned, similarly to natural gas, for heat, explained James Arnott, program director at the Aspen Global Change Institute. The organization is a member of the consortium.

The other main byproduct is biochar, a material that locks in carbon and enhances soil. The qualities of biochar are the focus of an experiment near Aspen, where it has been used to help revegetate and stabilize a mine tailings pile that could slide into Castle Creek, a key water supply for the city. So far, biochar has proven effective in helping seeds take root in the challenging soils of the steep tailings pile.

Arnott was charged with coming up with a model that allows an assessment of the feasibility of biomass, based on the availability of the raw material, transportation costs and what is required to convert the material to heat. The equation considers the amount of carbon produced by the process, but also the amount offset by using biomass rather than another energy source, he said.

Within a certain distance, local biomass use is “carbon negative and energy positive,” Arnott said.

And, unlike wind and solar power, biomass can provide energy continuously, Bennett noted.

“It’s not going to replace wind and solar, but it may have a very good place in the puzzle,” he said.

The consortium’s goal is not to build a biomass facility, but to help local communities, organizations and developers understand that it’s a feasible option to provide heat, particularly to a complex of buildings, Bennett said. And, the running of a facility creates jobs.

“What you really want to do is find new projects that are being planned and get in there early, at the design phase,” said Nathan Ratledge, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. “We want people to know that this is an option.”

Other participants in the coalition are the Sopris Foundation and Flux Farm.

janet@aspentimes.com