|‘A great source of
Biomass’ projects using wood, other organic
material for energy under consideration across Colorado
Diesel fuel made from soybeans,
which powers this bean, is just one example of alternative
energy sources growing in popularity.
Special to the Daily
September 22, 2005
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VAIL - There's a potential upside to all those
trees in the West killed by beetles and drought. It's called biomass,
and it's a catch-all term used to describe a variety of ways wood and
other biological waste and byproducts can be used to create energy.
Last month, the Western Governors' Association awarded the state of
Colorado $100,000 to pursue biomass projects. It may not sound like
much, but as the state and nation face dwindling energy supplies and
soaring prices, it's part of a growing trend to look at a variety of
"We're hoping it will help the state not only
increase awareness of biomass possibilities, but that it'll get things
stimulated," said Gayle Gordon from the Western Governors'
Association, based in Denver. "In theory, it's a great source of
energy that also helps reduce fuel hazards in forests."
| What the heck is biomass?
|Humankind has been using biomass energy
for thousands of years - ever since people started burning
wood to cook food or keep warm.
Wood and other types of biomass "feedstock" can be converted
to energy by combustion, or in other ways, such as turning
vegetable oil into diesel fuel.
According to Bob Evans, a scientist at the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory in Golden, there are five different
categories of biomass:
1. Agricultural residues, such as corn stover (the corn plant,
husk and stalk), or other materials that are typically
discarded or turned under in the field;
2. Forest residues, including wood and other materials on the
forest floor such as needles, duff and cones;
3. Energy crops: Plants that are grown specifically for use in
biomass applications, such as switchgrass or other
fast-growing crops. Fields that are lying empty are good
candidates for the introduction of such crops;
4. Animal waste, such as manure, that can be used by
converting methane into energy;
5. Solid waste from towns and cities, which includes
everything from yard waste to construction waste that would
otherwise go in the landfill. Sludge from sewage plants is
In addition to its many potential domestic sources, the use of
biomass energy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which
contribute to global warming. That's because biomass generates
about the same amount of carbon dioxide as fossil fuels, but
when a new plant grows, carbon dioxide is actually removed
from the atmosphere. The net emission of carbon dioxide will
be zero as long as plants continue to be replenished for
biomass energy purposes.
The vast numbers of beetle-killed trees in the Eagle County and
surrounding forests, Gordon said, is a good example of the type of
material available for biomass projects. Not only would removing such
trees contribute to overall forest health, she said, but it would
provide energy as well as economic opportunity close to the fuel
The number of organizations interested in biomass is slowly starting
to increase. Partnerships are forming between various entities that
bring different things to the table. Vail Resorts, for example, has
plenty of dead trees on its slopes, plus an abundance of wood
Luke Cartin, environment coordinator for Vail Resorts, said he's been
in touch with the nonprofit Leadville Institute of Science and
Technology, which is at the epicenter of biomass planning in the
Summit County is studying the feasibility of heating the new hospital
and some county buildings with biomass. According to Steve Hill,
special projects manager for Summit County, wood-chip-fired boilers
could be operating as early as next year.
"The principal motivation was to find a way to deal with all the
beetle-kill trees and reduce fuel-loading in the forest," Hill said.
"Our study showed it looked feasible from a technical as well as an
In Leadville, the middle school is working with
partners to heat its swimming pool using biomass technology.
The "Cornhusker State" is among the
nation's largest ethanol producers. Seven plants produced more
than 350 million gallons of ethanol in 2001, about 20 percent of
the nation's total production.
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"We're pretty far along with that project" said Robin Littlepage,
president of the Leadville Institute. Littlepage said the pool heating
would be accomplished through the use of wood chips, which would be
burned to heat water, which is then circulated to heat the pool.
This kind of technology has been used in states like Vermont and
Minnesota for decades. But those are states with vibrant timber
industries and plenty of scrap wood from which to make chips and
It's not as clear what the capabilities would be in the Colorado High
Country, which is why the Leadville Institute and its partners are
currently at work on a feasibility study.
While acknowledging that they're short on specifics, Littlepage said
the best-case scenario for the future would be the Institute at the
center of a bustling regional business with multiple partners creating
everything from wood chips and pellets to biomass fuels like ethanol
and biodiesel, as well as other products such as absorbants to clean
pollutants from waterways.
Some day, perhaps, trees from the forest could be converted into
biodiesel or electricity, which could power a chairlift or run a
snowcat. Larger municipal buildings would be heated using biomass,
reducing dependence on expensive and unpredictable fuels like oil and
It all depends on whether a model can be created to demonstrate that
it's all economically feasible.
How it works
Biomass can be used in a number of ways to produce
energy. The examples in Summit County and Leadville represent the more
simplistic uses: wood is converted into heat by combustion.
Wood residues from pulp and paper
manufacturing, lumber mills, and other industrial wood users are
frequently used for producing biomass electricity. Using sound
forest management practices, some regions also harvest wood
specifically for power production. Many agricultural "waste"
products such as rice husks, nut shells, and orchard prunings can
be used as fuel for electricity production, thus turning serious
residue disposal problems into valuable products.
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Littlepage cautions that the term "burn" doesn't accurately describe
the technology used, and it also connotes a dirtier form of energy
"A lot of new technologies are coming on that can convert wood waste
to heat and do it very efficiently with reduced emissions," said Ed
Lewis, senior deputy director of the Colorado Governor's Office of
Energy Management and Conservation.
There's no comparison, Lewis said, between an old-style fireplace and
a modern pellet stove in terms of the pollutants emitted.
But burning wood - or "combusting biomass," as proponents prefer it be
termed - is only part of the equation. Bob Evans, a chemist who works
with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, is working
with the Leadville Institute to define opportunities for biomass.
While his background is primarily on the technical side as a
scientist, Evans is adamant that any biomass initiative must be
"The trouble with Leadville is the availability of feedstock," Evans
said, referring to materials that can be used in a biomass facility.
There may be a fair amount of wood available in the forests, but
nothing on the order of that seen in more heavily wooded areas like
the upper Midwest or the Northeast. That means looking at other
products, one of which, Evans said, could be absorbant materials for
use in mining and water cleanup.
"That's something that could be of significant economic value," Evans
said, adding that mining, which needs absorbant products, will
continue to be a factor in the Colorado economy.
But with fuel costs continuing to rise, biomass
may become more attractive in the coming years as an alternate fuel
source, he said. Economic incentives from the government can make
individual projects and a full-scale facility even more viable.
"It will probably take about $15 million to build a facility," Evans
said. "It'll require public-private partnerships, also, because so
much of the wood comes from public land."
Ultimately, Evans and Littlepage envision a Leadville facility that
will serve the surrounding communities and act as a model for other
such installations across the state and country.
"The cost is high because we'd design it as a world-class facility,"
Evans said. In addition to being a clearing house for things like wood
chips and pellets and absorbants, it would also be a refinery for
biofuels. Education would also be part of the mission.
Addressing the seeming irony that the fuels of the future bear a
strong resemblance to those of the past, Evans noted that 40 percent
of the world's population doesn't have access to electricity on a
"It's not just the caveman; those people, their primary supply of fuel
is wood," he said. "Petroleum is a finite resource, so it's ironic -
or comforting - that you can grow what you need."
Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or
On the Web:
U.S. Department of Energy: eere.energy.gov/biomass
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: nrel.gov
Leadville Institute of Science & Technology: listresearch.org
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado