Dying pine trees could fuel green-energy revolution in Vail

(Photo/Bob Spencer)

(Photo/Bob Spencer)

It’s hard to imagine nearly 2 million acres of dead and dying lodgepole pine trees as anything more than a terrible eyesore and potential fuel for a catastrophic wildfire.

But Vail Town Councilman Mark Gordon says those trees could provide nearly 100 percent of the ski-resort town’s hot water and electricity needs, and he envisions a biomass gasification power plant becoming a model for the rest of the state.

“The stars are aligning to make something like this happen,” Gordon said. “Between potentially the governor’s energy office, the stimulus bill, the new (presidential) administration, our citizens’ very explicit desire for us to be an environmental leader and the technologies changing, at this point it makes sense for us to be pursuing this.”

Gordon said he’s had exploratory discussions with several companies that specialize in biomass technology, as well as with businesses and utility companies in the Vail Valley, and there is a high level of interest in pursuing this unique type of biomass power plant in Vail.

“If a project like this could happen, it is such a huge win-win, because not only does Vail get the benefits of national forest stewardship, relieving the fire danger, it also gives us sustainable energy and makes us an environmental leader, as our citizens overwhelmingly want us to be,” he said, citing surveys that show the more than 4,500 year-round residents of Vail want the town to be greener in every way.

One of the great contradictions of the push in recent years for ski areas and ski towns to become increasingly environmentally friendly is the simultaneous trend toward more and more luxe amenities, such as larger hotel rooms and vacation homes, artificial snowmaking and hot-water snowmelt systems under streets, sidewalks and driveways.

And over the past decade, a massive pine bark beetle epidemic has ravaged millions of aging lodgepole pine trees that surround ski towns; the rice-sized insects feast on forests stressed by decades of drought and fire suppression.

Gordon said wood gasification, which uses extremely intense heat (more than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit) to convert wood chips into hot water and electricity with minimal greenhouse gas emissions, is already working well in Europe.

Vail is surrounded by the White River National Forest, one of the forests hardest hit by the beetle outbreak, but to access those trees means logging roads and truck traffic, and burning them in pellet stoves or conventional biomass plants means an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

Still, public opposition seems to be melting away in the face of the devastating beetle epidemic and its potential for massive wildfires.

Gordon is actually resuscitating a concept first floated several years ago by former Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz, a native of Austria who now works in public affairs for Vail’s sister resort, Beaver Creek.

That ski area also has a long-term relationship with the Austrian ski resort of Lech, where a wood-gasification plant has been providing 90 percent of the town’s hot water and electricity for years.

“It was started because of the beginning of smog buildup in the village,” Kurz said. “Because so many of the heating system use coal and oil and they had this pall over Lech that would sit there, and they realized that in time it would get worse and that with people becoming much more concerned about eco travel and vacationing they would loose clientele.”

There are more than 100 biomass plants in operation around the United States, but Europe — and in particular heavily forested Austria (21 percent of its heat comes from biomass) — is way ahead.

That could change under the Obama administration, because some $200 million of the stimulus package is devoted to biomass research and production and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a former biomass researcher.

“Having watched what has happened in Europe, and specifically the (plant) in Lech, in my opinion there are very few reasons why it wouldn’t work here if we can afford the infrastructure to get it started,” Kurz said. “We are going to have fuel for that type of plant for a long, long time with all the beetle-kill trees.”

Gordon said the ideal scenario would be for the town to provide land for the plant at its public works complex and sign a long-term contract to purchase electricity and hot water for snowmelt from an independent and newly created utility.

He hopes state and federal funds, and perhaps some private-sector money, could pay for the plant itself, which could then serve as a model for similar facilities around the state.

A separate wood-chipping facility would need to come on line to grind trees into useable fuel. Hopefully it would be built near enoughto reduce transportation costs. Trees currently have to be shipped to lumber mills and wood pellet plants in Kremmling and Montrose, which are up to 120 miles away.

A biomass gasification cogeneration (both hot water and electricity) power plant, which can also use cardboard cartons and other wood waste products for fuel, leaves only potash as a final residue. Potash has commercial value for use in manufacturing, mining and agriculture.

After initially firing up with conventional energy from the grid, such as natural gas, a biomass gasification plant becomes self-sustaining because of its own heat generation.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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