Udall, Denver Water, Forest Service back Vail biomass plant to DOE

Lodgepole pines across Colorado, including these trees in Summit County, have been affected by bark beetles. (Creative Commons photo by vsmoothe via Flickr)

Lodgepole pine trees across Colorado, including these trees in Summit County, have been affected by bark beetles. (Creative Commons photo by vsmoothe via Flickr)

 
The concept of a biomass power plant in Vail first reported by The Colorado Independent back in February has turned into a formal request for U.S. Department of Energy funding backed by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, the U.S. Forest Service and the Denver Water Board.

The town of Vail has sent a letter of support to the DOE backing the plans of a Connecticut-based paper products company that wants to build a 28-megawatt combined heat and power biomass plant that would utilize thousands of surrounding acres of lodgepole pine trees killed by an ongoing bark beetle infestation.

The facility being proposed by Hayden Cary & King Company of Darien, Conn., would be built on three acres of town-owned land and modeled after similar facilities in Europe that consume chipped wood waste in a high-heat, low-oxygen “gasification” process that primarily produces thermal energy at much lower carbon emission levels than gas or coal-fired power plants. The company is seeking $30 million in federal funding.

In a letter of interest to the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said the resort community is trying to lower its carbon emissions and energy use to 20 percent below 2006 levels by 2020 despite “rapid development.”

At the same time, he said Vail is spending big money to cut down dead trees — more than 1.5 million acres have died statewide — in order to create a defensible space around town where firefighters will be able to dig in to combat wildfires.

“The town has invested over $600,000 in tree removal to establish defensible space against wildfire around our community, but there is currently no sustainable market for the waste wood, causing significant barriers to removal,” Zemler wrote, pointing to a local power plant as an ideal market. Currently, trees are trucked at huge expense to lumber mills or wood pellet plants hundreds of miles away, and slash piles are burned in the winter.

Zemler also sees the facility as a domestic and international eco-tourism opportunity and a way to demonstrate the viability of small-scale biomass power plants around the country. He estimated a biomass plant would result in a reduction in carbon emissions of 17,000 tons a year and create at least 50 local jobs.

“This project will allow Vail to provide an educational experience for visitors and grow the tourist economy in town, which is currently based primarily on the ski industry. This project is a model for efficiency and sustainable energy use that will inform other communities’ sustainability efforts.”

Hayden Cary & King estimated six of the facility’s 28 megawatts of power will be net electrical output, which the local rural electrical co-op, Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, has expressed interest in purchasing. The Vail Valley Medical Center, Vail Resorts, which operates the ski area and several large hotels, and the town of Vail would likely purchase the thermal energy to heat buildings and provide street snow melt.

Tractor manufacturer John Deere would partner on the project to demonstrate automated harvesting systems, including slash bundling, that can produce fuel for the plant and deliver it to the side of the road for less than $20 a ton. The key is to keep those costs competitive with natural gas, which is still relatively cheap in Colorado.

“Hayden-Cary & King Co. is working to combat the destruction and waste Colorado faces due to pine and spruce beetle infestations that are destroying millions of acres of Colorado’s forests,” Udall said in his letter of support. “The goals of the … combined heat and power plant project include re-establishment of the sustainable forestry industry, economic development and education that will add a competitive energy to the grid.”

The Denver Water Board is dealing with the fallout from recent massive wildfires far outstripping what Vail is spending on fire mitigation. The company providing water to a quarter of the state’s population (1.3 million customers) has had six wildfires since 1996 in one of its most critical watersheds, the Upper South Platte.

As result of the Buffalo Creek and Hayman fires, erosion has forced Denver Water to embark on a $25 million project to remove sediment from Strontia Springs Reservoir.

“There is a shrinking forestry industry and a lack of infrastructure and the creation of markets to maximize the economic value of the trees,” Denver Water Board Manager Hamlet J. Barry wrote to the DOE in a letter of support for the Vail project.

“The combined heat and power system project would not only provide clean energy, but establish a demand for sustainable forestry practices. These types of projects will help reduce the treatment costs in the forest and promote healthier forests within Colorado’s watersheds.”

And the U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the acreage currently being devastated by the bark beetle, has signed on because, “The Forest Service has an acute need for utilization of beetle killed pine and spruce,” according to Susan Ford of the USFS Rocky Mountain Region office in Golden. “The reality of a successful project in Colorado would be an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate sustainable, community-scale projects.”

The nearby town of Avon, at the base of Beaver Creek ski area, also has been looking into biomass power. Beaver Creek’s sister resort of Lech, Austria, has a biomass power plant that provides 90 percent of the heat for the town’s hotels and lodges, all but eliminating a brown cloud that had developed because of traditional heating oil.

In support documents filed with the DOE, Hayden Cary & King officials said they could envision owning and operating 100 such facilities in the United States within 10 years, although there are potentially 10,000 ideal locations. Other communities in Colorado, besides Vail and Avon, have expressed interest, including the city of Rifle in the heart of Garfield County natural gas country.

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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.