Beetle-kill pine, other wood pushed as power source — and way to aid ailing Colorado forests

Another fine photo by Bob Berwyn
From the Denver Post last Thursday..

CARBONDALE — The Roaring Fork Valley lies close to abundant coal and gas fuel sources. But wood is the fuel that has a local consortium — and a state senator — fired up as an energy source that also would aid Colorado’s ailing forests.

A Roaring Fork Valley consortium found through a two-year study that there is plenty of wood in the form of drought- and beetle-killed pine, fire-stoking brush, aged aspen and construction scraps to make it a feasible adjunct to traditional fossil-fuel energy sources. Burning wood for fuel also is viewed as a potentially important part of saving the state from a conflagration like the one that ravaged Arizona forests this summer.

The Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium took the lead on the issue this week by releasing its study, which included trips to Europe to inspect biomass heating systems there and detailed analysis of the carbon footprint of trucks that would be needed to haul wood from forests in the valley.

The consortium also held a bio-mass “summit” Wednesday that brought together experts from across the state and from the East Coast, where a biomass project at Middlebury College in Vermont is looked at as an example for what might be done in Colorado.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said using wood to generate heat is more than an environmental dream. “This is not just another nice renewable thing to do. Colorado needs this,” she said.

Schwartz sponsored forest-health legislation in the last legislative session that created a working group to look at Colorado’s ailing forests and at solutions, such as reducing the amount of dead or diseased wood by using it as a fuel source.

She said that, so far, the forest problem has been looked at piecemeal on a statewide level — not comprehensively as the Roaring Fork consortium is doing.

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Wednesday’s gathering that his agency has plenty of forest available for the collection of woody biomass but noted it would be a byproduct of forest restoration — not the object of such a project.

Like Schwartz, Fitzwilliams stressed the importance of promoting biomass now.

“I think we have a moral obligation to do this,” he said.

One biomass project already is in the planning stages for nearby Eagle County. Eagle Valley Clean Energy LLC is focusing on Gypsum as the site for a $46 million biomass plant that annually would consume 1,200 acres of wood — mainly waste such as branches, thinnings and dead trees. The Forest Service routinely stacks such materials in slash piles and then burns them.

Holy Cross Energy is on board with this project, which is projected to be operational in 2013. The company has committed to buying power for customers who are demanding that some of their power come from renewable sources, said Holy Cross chief executive Del Worley.

Consortium speakers did point out that Colorado faces some drawbacks in moving into woody biomass power. The timber in Colorado is dry because of the climate and thus burns faster. And energy costs are lower in an oil- and gas-rich state, so the savings from using biomass would not be as large as in other places.

Schwartz said she will be working on further legislation that will remove governmental obstacles to creating biomass facilities.

8 thoughts on “Beetle-kill pine, other wood pushed as power source — and way to aid ailing Colorado forests”

  1. The Money Quote:

    “White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Wednesday’s gathering that his agency has plenty of forest available for the collection of woody biomass but noted it would be a byproduct of forest restoration — not the object of such a project.”

    Certainly, there would not be the promised 30 million acres of clearcuts that the anti-biomass industry advertises. A combined merchantable thinning project with biomass could be sustainable, and maybe even palatable to the frustrated conservationists. It is clear that biomass alone doesn’t pay its way out of the woods. There are benefits and drawbacks to any decisions (or non-decisions) made regarding public forests. They ALL should be thoroughly analyzed, with the courts in mind, as well. There is no sense in fighting for “doing the right thing”, if it goes against the Endangered Species Act. I hope there is no push to build more roads, other than short, temporary roads to helicopter landings. Now is not the time to have a Judge telling the Forest Service to do something different.

    • Foto- they are not talking about building more roads.. there are plenty of trees along roads that already exist. There aren’t as many endangered species in Colorado as in other parts of the country; I’m not sure based on the state of lumber mills in Colorado and the size of trees there would be a “merchantable” thinning program.

      From what they are saying it sounds like they are talking about leavings from wildlife treatments, fuels treatments and hazard tree removal. The key thing would be to size the plants appropriately so that folks don’t have to stretch to reach the amount of biomass needed.

      And, I have argued, we also need to develop mobile technologies that can move in like a flock of birds when there is a massive outbreak of insects and dead trees; and then move on to the next outbreak.

      • I, also, have been pushing the idea of having a network of “collection points”, which have powerline service, enough storage area, and located in spots that don’t impact residents downwind. The mobile biomass burner doesn’t have to be moved in until the storage area is filled. My message was more directed at the anti-biomass people, who use those issues to block intermediate beneficial alternatives to intense resource extraction.

        I’m sure there are parts of Colorado where ponderosa pines (and the encroaching lodgepoles) need thinning. “Merchantable” was meant to imply that the product does have monetary value. For example, the 4FRI project should have a product to sell over 300,000 acres.

  2. Yes. Finally!

    We could have built (and still can and should) an entire infrastructure of biomass-fueled cogeneration facilities throughout all of the western States that contain USFS beetle-killed and fire-killed trees for a fraction of what we have spent on wind power and solar power and electric cars.

    Would these facilities have to be subsidized (as with wind and solar and electric cars)? Probably — at least at first.

    Would it be worth it? Tax-producing rural jobs; local energy sef-sufficiency; safer, more beautiful forests; reduced wildfire risks and damages; truly “protected” old-growth and other native plant and animal populations; less water and air pollution; more productive soils; preserved historical and cultural resources; enhanced recreational opportunities; funded schools and highways; etc., would be a number of the more obvious benefits.

    Green. Renewable. Biodiversity. Jobs. Fresh water. Clean air. Wildlife habitat. Energy.

    This would be a welcomed return to the active management of our public forests and grasslands that have been seriously degraded and severely damaged under the passive management experiments of the past few decades.

    Do it. Please.

  3. Does anyone know if folks in Co are looking to MT for any guidance on this? There were some extensive studies on biomass done in MT a few years ago, lots of economic feasibility studies. I’m out of the loop on this, but I’m pretty sure R1 has a lots of good info if anyone is interested. Sharon is right on target with the point that it all comes down to the appropriate scale, given all the concerns from the public across the spectrum.

  4. There should be a journalism law that states “no story will be printed until a proposed project actually breaks ground”. If I had a dime for every “proposed wind, solar, or biomass plant” story I’ve ever read….that never gets built. No one tracks how many proposed plants ever get built-and those that have show a very small number.

    That said, I’d love to see biomass- but didn’t a 60 million dollar one just close down in Arizona and was auctioned off for $4 mil,???
    I think they’re a very economically viable physical plant-if the present fuel source is something expensive like propoane. It’s hard to pencil out if your fuel is cheap nat. gas. But economics makes my eye’s glaze over.

    I find it ironic that those who oppose biomass on the grounds that it will pollute our air-are also those who want to return fire to the ecosystem. Will somebody tell me how much more “particulates’ are in one day of summer smoke in Missoula vs. a year of biomass particulates.

  5. PS- I’m no big fan of subsidies- but if we have to subsidize “wind power” to the tune of 30% (2 cents/kilowatt hour production tax credit)of the cost to produce the electricity-then how come we can’t subsidize the cost of “biomass”. goodnight.

  6. Folks,
    I don’t know where to start, I have never blogged before but I spent the 70’s in Colorado, SE Idaho and Wyoming as a forester, the 80’s & 90’s in north Idaho and western Montana.
    In the 70’s we had a viable forest products industry in both Colorado and Wyoming primarily due to the huge number of acres of dead and dying lodgepole that the USFS was trying to harvest to reduce the mountain pine beetle epidemic which had been raging since the 60’s. Burning the forest was unacceptable because if you started you would never be able to stop it. I was a member of both the Colorado & Wyoming Timber Industry Association and we could only sit by and watch popular opinion both locally and nationally erode vegetative management on the national forests. Today there are no large sawmills in either state which can handle the size of the projects needed to forstall the wildfires which are sure to come. In the 20′ & 30’s the USFS lured the industry to less profitable areas in the “arrid west” by putting up lage timber sales which would guarantee enough profit for seed money to jump start vegetative management on the national forests. When I came to Saratoga, Wyoming in 1976 from southern Idaho I had 3 sales still under contract from the 50’s & 60’s which were originally around 100-150 million board feet each. They were not yet closed because every five years they extended after they were modified through an environmental review to update the contract. It was recognized that the management was still necessary and as long as the contracts were updated under the new environmental regulations the contracts were still viable.
    At any rate I spent every day of 30+ years looking at the drainages on the Targhee, Medicine Bow, Bridger-Teton, Panhandle and Kootenai national forests looking at “red tops” as far as the eye could see. We never got ahead of the mountain pine beetle but we did reduce it to an endemic population in the drainages we were able to log. The major benefit looking back, we halted the catastrophic wildfire potential in the drainage by removing the lodgepole, which is just a pioneer species in the mixed stands, thereby allowing climax species to move ahead in natural succesion without setting the stand back a hundred years with a fire.
    I have watched the hand wringing in Colorado over the last few years and realize that all the instutional knowledge the USFS and the industry gained from the 20’s through the 80′ or 90’s is gone or being ignored.
    One last note on biomass, the mills burned sawdust and bark (biomass) to dry the lumber heat the buildings and in the newer mills used a steam turbine to power the operation, no natural gas, no oil, no coal. Had we continued to provide the opportunity those mills in southwest Idaho, Colorado & WyomingI think by now the problem or dying forests & biomass utilization would be much closer to being solved.
    I’m hoping that those of us in north Idaho and western Montana have a better chance through our landscape cooperatives to obtain level headed utilization of biomass to help reduce the already overwelming amount of dead and dying wood by enliosting the help of the forest industry.


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