Small Woody Biomass Plants in Colorado

In Gypsum, located 140 miles west of Denver, a biomass mill began operations in December, burning wood to create 10 megawatts of round-the-clock electricity. A wall board plant is at left, the biomass plant is to the right. Bill Heicher photo.

In Gypsum, located 140 miles west of Denver, a biomass mill began operations in December, burning wood to create 10 megawatts of round-the-clock electricity. A wall board plant is at left, the biomass plant is to the right. Bill Heicher photo.

Most of the discussion in Colorado these weeks have been about the green (Cannabis) and the blue and orange (Broncos). Of course, the winter sky is blue, living trees are green and dead trees are orange, at least for a while. Here’s an article in the Sunday Denver Post Perspective, by Allen Best, about some new biomass plants in Colorado.

For most of the last decade, Coloradans have been talking about how to make good use of their mountain forests, dying and gray. Something is finally happening.

In Gypsum, 140 miles west of Denver, a biomass mill began operations in December, burning wood to create 10 megawatts of round-the-clock electricity.

In Colorado Springs, the city utility began mixing biomass with coal in January to produce 4.5 megawatts of power.

In Pagosa Springs, a 5-megawatt biomass plant may be launched next year, producing one-sixth of the baseload demand in Archuleta County.

And at Xcel Energy’s headquarters in Denver, environmental officials are sorting through proposals for a 2-megawatt biomass demonstration plant. The utility wants to understand the technology, the problems and promises.

This isn’t much electricity compared to the 1,426 megawatts generated by the Comanche coal-fired complex at Pueblo and the 1,139 megawatts at Craig. But biomass plants can and should be part of the electrical mix. In providing a market for woody material, they can make forests less vulnerable to fires like the ones that have killed nine people and destroyed 1,164 homes along the Front Range over the last two years.

Biomass also displaces burning of fossil fuels, reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. That’s worth something, maybe a lot to Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, which is paying extra for the electricity produced at Gypsum to help reduce its carbon footprint. It expects to be at 23 percent renewables later this year.

Colorado environmental groups, however, are skeptical that biomass plants will actually lower carbon dioxide emissions. “We’re saying we want to see the analysis of greenhouse gas impacts,” says Gwen Farnsworth of Western Resource Advocates.

Biomass clearly can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by displacing fossil fuels, says Keith Paustian, a professor of soil ecology at Colorado State University. “There are questions as to what degree you do that, and obviously, you want as low a carbon footprint as possible,” he says.

Paustian hopes a more detailed accounting of carbon impacts will be a byproduct of the $10 million research project he is leading. The project, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies, seeks to examine the potential for conversion of the 22 million acres of beetle-impacted wood in the Rocky Mountains into bioenergy.

An even broader fear among some environmental groups is that public lands will be managed to feed the hunger of biomass plants, instead of the bieomass plants being a useful tool for curbing fire risk. “We don’t want the tail wagging the dog,” says Sloan Shoemaker, director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

If Eagle Valley Clean Energy, developer of the plant at Gypsum, sticks to its projections, that won’t be a problem. It insists that at least 30 percent of wood will come from landfills, another 20 percent or more from private lands, and a minimum of 40 percent from state or federal lands.

As far as I know if the question is “environmental impacts of burning wood that is dead and would give off greenhouse gases anyway, compared to coal and natural gas, it seems like it has been studied, in fact, quite a bit.

What the big biomass controversies I’ve seen are about “if people convert lands to grow biomass energy” or other “ifs” about biomass sources that are not considered to be “residues.”

Western Resource Advocates works against coal and natural gas, which are our current main sources of energy here.

I also appreciated Sloan’s comment. It seems to me you can work with “fear of getting too large” pretty easily by only using small sized units and putting a cap on the total. But if it’s about trust, maybe not. I have to note that back when I worked on bark beetle residues, DOE was supposed to help the FS with this, but focused their work on giant-sized solutions, not small or mobile technologies.

Best’s last paragraph..

In other words, biomass plants aren’t the answer to everything that ails us. They won’t immediately turn our forests green, nor will they alone replace the fossil-fuel plants that are fouling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

But biomass has another attribute. Think of it as the energy equivalent of community agriculture. The 20th century was all about bigger and more centralized production of everything. This creates huge supply lines, mile-long coal trains going to plants, and high-voltage power lines leaving them.

It’s easy to think of water originating in the tap, electricity in the outlet, without broader consequences. Smaller sources of power generation, close to their locations of use, keep us in touch with the spider’s web of our relationship to the energy we use.

You could probably say that about local wood products as well..

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