Vail snubbed by DOE in bid to build biomass power plant

In the end, it may not be NIMBYism or environmentalist objections to producing power by burning trees that dooms Vail’s proposed biomass power plant. It may just be a simple lack of funding.

Reportedly on a short list of projects being eyed for Department of Energy funding, the Vail project – which would produce up to 28 megawatts of hot-water heat and eight megawatts of electricity by gasifying beetle-killed pine trees – came up short last week in its bid for a DOE grant to offset $46 million in startup costs.

The town of Vail Friday issued a release saying six projects using natural gas as a fuel source were awarded $21 million in grants under the DOE’s “Combined Heat and Power Systems Technology Development and Demonstration” program, leaving the Vail project unfunded.

Some saw the Vail project as a way to start coping with the mountain pine bark beetle that has ravaged area forests, killing millions of acres of lodgepole pine trees and presenting significant wildfire risks for mountain dwellers, ski resorts and water storage facilities for Front Range cities.

Efforts to mitigate the wildfire risk by creating defensible space for firefighters around mountain communities have led to enormous amounts of slash and dead wood clogging local landfills. European countries such as Austria, where national forests are managed more intensively, have been utilizing woody biomass for power and heat for years.

But in Colorado there have been questions about access to the fuel source, how long it will last and whether the plant in East Vail would create a steady stream of trucks hauling trees to a wood chipping facility and back to the power plant. In other parts of the country, there has been a rising tide of protest over using trees to produce power and just how much carbon is produced by the process.

Proponents argue the emissions, which are lowered by the high-heat gasification process, more than offset either the amount of carbon that would be spewed into the atmosphere by a wildfire or even natural biodegrading of a forest ravaged by pine beetles.

Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said in the release that the U.S. Forest Service is conducting a biomass supply study to determine if there is enough beetle-killed wood in the area to sustain a Vail-sized power plant over the long haul. Results of that study are expected in September.

Meanwhile, Andrew King of Hayden, Cary, & King, who submitted the grant request, said he will keep working with the Forest Service, town and Holy Cross Energy – the local electric co-op – to find different funding sources, including other federal grants and U.S. Department of Agriculture guaranteed loans.

In the original grant application, Zemler talked about offsetting the costs of mitigating wildfire risks by creating a market for regional waste wood and positioning Vail as an eco-tourism destination. Vail Resorts, which operates several local ski areas, including Vail and Beaver Creek, was mentioned as a potential buyer for the power that would be produced.

Last week, Vail Resorts, which has positioned itself as a ski industry leader in purchasing renewable energy offsets, restoring watersheds impacted by wildfire and promoting conservation and green building, announced a new website to market those achievements. The new site is called “Echo.”

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