Rising fuel costs hampering beetle-kill biomass solution in Colorado

Battling mountain pine beetles with biomass, or at least turning the lodgepole pine trees they kill into wood pellets for heating homes, is all the rage in the heavily infested high country of Colorado these days, but rapidly rising fuel costs may start to dampen even that market before it ever really gets rolling.


The solution may lie in bringing the biomass to the beetle, forest experts say, using portable wood pellet production facilities and portable lathes for lumber production that can reduce log transport costs rising through the roof with $140-a-barrel oil.


“The biggest problem I’ve found is trucks, and that goes back to the fuel costs,” Eagle County wildfire mitigation manager Eric Lovgren said. “On all these [beetle-mitigation] projects the thing we’re constantly working on is keeping trucks moving through and then the cost of transport. It just keeps going up.”


Even with the state’s first wood-pellet production facility coming online in Kremmling this spring and somewhat offsetting the cost of cutting down and removing dead trees, Forest Service officials say they’re contracting mitigation projects such as one in the Wildernest neighborhood of Summit County at $1,300 an acre.


Throw in the costs of a helicopter needed to remove trees on steep slopes in designated roadless areas such as a project last month in West Vail, where traditional skid roads can’t be utilized, and those costs skyrocket to more than $10,000 an acre. Transporting one load of logs 70 miles from Vail to the pellet plant in Kremmling currently costs about $500.


It’s hoped that once a large enough commercial market is developed for wood pellets, which are made of compacted sawdust derived from the beetle-killed trees and then used in special clean-burning stoves, the cost of clearing out an acre of dead lodgepoles could be reduced to $500 or $600 an acre.


The stoves, which burn so clean they can often be used on days when wood-burning bans are in effect, cost between $3,000 and $4,000. Forty-pound bags of pellets currently cost about $5 a bag and can heat a home for hours.


The nonprofit Denver-based Energy Outreach Colorado predicts the average electricity and natural gas bill in Colorado this coming winter will top $1,200, more than double the cost just five years ago.


With more than 1.5 million acres of dead lodgepole pines from the beetle epidemic that began in 1996, the state is loaded with a great source of potential alternative fuel. The problem is accessing it all and processing it in a cost-effective way.


“The whole pellet and biomass technology has been in widespread use throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia for decades now, and pretty widespread throughout the northeast of the United States as well — Vermont and New Hampshire, and parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington, (comma) too — so we’re kind of behind the curve on that,” Lovgren said.


A huge game of catch-up is under way in Colorado, with a second pelletizing plant in the works in Walden and a number of firms lining up to bring portable technologies to the field and thereby solve the transportation-cost dilemma.


Lovgren said 80 percent of the trees cut down in Eagle County within the two- to three-year window that allows them to still be used for commercial building lumber are milled at a facility 200 miles away in Montrose. The trees can still be used for pellets anywhere from 10 to 20 years after they die.


“There’s certainly some portable [pellet technology] — they call them canneries — and we’re also actually working with a gentleman right now who has a portable wood lathe system that we’re hoping we can find a way to harvest and process these logs and use them to build affordable housing here in Eagle County,” Lovgren said, adding that means going into some areas earlier.


“When it’s a red and dead forest people are OK with going in, but some people are still holding on,” Lovgren said. “The Forest Service needs to let [loggers] go into some areas that are still green but the damage is done, and that’s been a tough sell for them.”


The Forest Service is doing just that, seeking bids this fall for a 300-acre timber sale deep in the woods behind Minturn and far from the urban-wildland interface (areas where the national forest is adjacent to mountain towns).


“Strictly from a fire management standpoint, if you can break up the continuity of the fuels a little farther up, you can change the behavior of the fire,” said Kerry Green, acting Holy Cross District ranger. “But for the most part it’s a dual emphasis where we’re trying to salvage the wood up there before the value of the timber goes totally out the door.”


With some degree of wildfire a foregone conclusion in the hardest hit areas of beetle kill, where more than 90-percent mortality is the norm, scientists say massive greenhouse gas emissions are inevitable, bolstering advocates of harnessing biomass potential for home heating. Still, some forest experts say even cleaner-burning technologies are on the horizon.


Peter Wild, CEO of Massachusetts-based Arborjet, a commercial plant health company currently trying to win EPA approval for a pine-beetle pesticide-injection process in Colorado, says he’s pursuing portable pyrolysis technology that could make transforming dead lodgepoles into energy a carbon-negative process


“Your area of the world is going to be ripe for this type of technology, and the fact that it’s portable, it can just move around from area to area. It would probably fit on two flatbed tractor trailer trucks,” Wild said. “Anytime that wood out there has to be trucked more than 25 miles it loses its value. You just move it 100 miles and extract everything within 25 miles of that area.”


Such pyrolysis facilities, which are still under development and which Wild estimates would cost up to $500,000, would break down organic material under pressure and heat in the absence of oxygen. The resulting product would either be biomass fuel, traditional electricity or “agri-char,” which can then be used to bolster the soil.

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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