From beetle-killed trees to come renewable energy
GYPSUM—As early as this December in a plant along the Interstate 70 corridor, wood that might have threatened Coloradans by burning in wildfires instead will be converted to electricity to power their homes.
Construction of the $56 million Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass electricity plant, Colorado’s first, is nearing completion. Under a 20-year contract, the 11.5-megawatt plant will supply 10 megawatts to Holy Cross Energy to help that utility meets its goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
Much of its wood supply will result from a 10-year, $8.66 million forest stewardship contract that Hotchkiss-based West Range Reclamation was awarded to remove insect-infested and diseased trees from the surrounding White River National Forest. The plant can make use of small-diameter trees, branches and other non-lumber-quality wood.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has helped champion such stewardship contracts as a means of responding to the problems of beetle kill and wildfire danger in Colorado’s forests, joined fellow elected officials and others in touring the nearly completed plant.
LEADING THE WAY
“Colorado’s leading the way in so many when it comes to energy,” Udall said. “People are innovating, thinking out of the box.”
But when it comes to generating power from biomass, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said Colorado ranks just 37th nationwide. Yet Udall said it’s currently the top generator of biomass of any state. He hopes to see more plants like the Gypsum one being built in Colorado.
“We can envision easily another five, and the sky’s the limit,” he said.
To help allow such things to happen, however, Udall wants to see Congress move quickly to renew the U.S. Forest Service’s authority to enter into stewardship contracts that make use of private-public partnerships to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk. That authority expires Sept. 30.
More widespread use of biomass power in the state may also face a hurdle from clean-air advocates, some of whom look askance at the energy source. Energy Justice Network’s Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign has created a website opposing the plant. Natalia Swalnick, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association in Colorado, said her organization also doesn’t support biomass as an electricity source, particularly because of concern over particulate emissions. If biomass is used, modern emissions controls should be employed, she said. “I understand that they have to clear the debris out of the forest, of course, but there’s limited data available on how these feedstocks affect emissions from biomass power,” she said.
Dean Rostrom, a principal in Colorado-based Evergreen Clean Energy Corp., the plant’s developer, said all the latest technology for emissions controls will be used, and those emissions will be almost indiscernible.
“We will scrub over 99.5 percent of the emissions,” Rostrom said.
Said Udall, “This will be a very clean-burning plant.”
The plant is considered carbon-neutral, as the wood otherwise would put out carbon as it decays in forests or burns in wildfires. Udall notes that the plant also reduces the reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels, while Schwartz said there are now about 175,000 forest slash piles in Colorado.
“We burn them and that sends all sorts of stuff into the atmosphere,” she said.
For Schwartz, Udall and other project supporters, the other attraction of the plant is job creation. Some 100 people have been involved in construction, and an estimated 40 or so jobs will be created to run the plant and do the local forestry work that will help supply it with the 250 tons of wood it can burn a day. “It’s going to be a nice project for the town,” Gypsum Mayor Steve Carver said. “… It’s going to employ a lot of people and clean up the forest floor.”
Eagle County also welcomes the project, County Manager Keith Montag said. Besides the benefits others cite, it will provide an outlet for construction and other wood waste now going to the county’s landfill.
HOLY CROSS SIGNS ON
The project is particularly exciting for Holy Cross Energy. Rostrom’s company submitted one of about 50 bids to the utility as it sought ways to broaden its renewable energy portfolio.
“Their project came in, the pricing was good, the concept was good, and so we signed a power-purchase agreement with them,” said Diana Golis, the utility’s senior manager of power supply and contracts.
The turbine-generated electricity will be created by heating water and tapping the steam. Unlike some renewable energy sources, the biomass plant will provide a fairly constant stream of energy, except when being taken down for maintenance.
Golis said 10 megawatts is roughly enough to supply 10,000 homes. Holy Cross has about 55,000 customers ranging from Aspen to Vail to Parachute.
The project is yet one more novel way Holy Cross has been diversifying its power supply. It also contracted to purchase power generated from waste methane associated with the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset.
The Gypsum plant is benefiting from a $40 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. Kendric Wait, another principal with Evergreen Clean Energy, said that will help keep the Gypsum power more affordable for Holy Cross customers.
FIRST BIOMASS PLANT
This is Evergreen’s first biomass plant, but those involved with the company have been involved with numerous other such projects. Biomass power is far more common in places such as the West and East coasts.
“We think it makes a lot of sense to build a few more of these in Colorado,” Rostrom said.
He said the challenge is to size them large enough that they benefit from economies of scale, but not too big for the supply of wood area forests can provide.
The company hopes to be able to sell leftover heat from the plant to a local user. It is located adjacent to the American Gypsum wallboard plant, but at least for now that plant has a cheaper source for heat.
The biomass plant’s location near the Eagle River earned it a “no” vote from one town council member, Tom Edwards. “We’ve done a master plan for the river and this isn’t in compliance with the master plan,” Edwards said. While the wallboard plant already was there, “I didn’t intend to line the river with heavy industrial,” he said.
The biomass plant is using berms and other means to try to reduce its aesthetic impact.
While they weren’t his principal concern, Edwards also has heard some object for air-quality reasons.
But Swalnick said the American Lung Association often advocates for emissions standards far more protective than existing ones.
For Schwartz and others comfortable with biomass plants, they offer one means of helping address Colorado’s beetle-kill and wildfire crises at a time of tight government budgets.
Said Udall, “What she’s describing is a sweet trifecta here — jobs, profits and forest health.”