Vail biomass plant makes final DOE cut, but project has it doubters

The latest version of a Vail biomass power plant, which would convert chipped-up, beetle-killed pine trees into electricity and heat, reportedly made the final cut for a $26 million U.S. Department of Energy grant.

First reported by the Colorado Independent in 2009, Vail’s biomass plant would use high-heat wood gasification to power boilers that would then pump hot water to lodges, hotels, snow-melt systems beneath streets and sidewalks and public buildings throughout the town of Vail. It would also generate some amount of electricity for the overall grid.

beetle kill pines

Widely used in European countries such as Austria and Denmark, the wood gasification concept in Vail has the backing of Sen. Mark Udall, the Denver Water Board, Vail Resorts and the local power cooperative, Holy Cross Energy.

According to a recent story in the Vail Daily, the grant request made the final cut of three potential projects out of a total of 80 applications. The $26 million DOE grant would fund a 28-megawatt biomass power plant likely located on town-owned land in East Vail.

The project is seen as a green way to deal with the ongoing mountain pine bark beetle epidemic, which is expected to kill more than 90 percent of the mature lodgepole pine trees in the Vail Valley. Denver Water is concerned that massive forest fires resulting from the epidemic will adversely impact reservoirs and other infrastructure around the state.

But not everyone is convinced a biomass plant is the best way to deal with the epidemic. Some environmentalists are worried about the impacts of harvesting dead and dying trees from the national forests. And there are concerns about road building, access to fuel supplies in steep and daunting terrain and truck traffic to and from the plant from an off-site wood-chipping facility.

Some scientists also question whether the naturally occurring beetle epidemic even makes forests more susceptible to wildfire.

Candidates in the Holy Cross Energy board election, which will be determined at the June 5 annual meeting in Glenwood Springs, all say they have questions about the Vail biomass power plant.

The rural electric co-op would most likely serve as a guaranteed customer for the power generated from the facility, but could also be asked to contribute funding for either the initial capital costs or running and maintaining the facility.

Holy Cross has a history of investing in power generation, having previously spent $100 million of ratepayer money on Xcel Energy’s new state-of-the-art Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant in Pueblo. That facility has experienced a number of technical delays and still is not online.

That Holy Cross investment, which was not widely publicized, has been blasted by some critics who claim it may cost the co-op in the event the Obama administration manages to pass some form of a carbon cap or cap-and-trade system in pending climate change legislation.

The board has seen a slow greening in recent years, with progressive candidates taking on extractive energy traditionalists.

The current election, which saw mail-in ballots go out Friday, pits progressive green engineer Erik Lundquist and more conservative former telecommunications and automotive executive Bill Maxwell against incumbent banker Michael Glass in the Northern District, which includes most of the Vail Valley. Glass, likely the more moderate of the three candidates, currently serves as the Holy Cross treasurer.

In another race for the Southern District, progressive David Munk is taking on incumbent Robert Starodoj. Munk has the backing of the Aspen Skiing Company, which has lobbied hard for climate change legislation and alternative energy and conservation measure at both the state and federal level.

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