A great source of energy'

Biomass’ projects using wood, other organic material for energy under consideration across Colorado

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Diesel fuel made from soybeans, which powers this bean, is just one example of alternative energy sources growing in popularity.
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Alex Miller
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 solutions.


 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 another source.

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.
"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."

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 source.

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 construction waste.

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 state.

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 economic viewpoint."


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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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In Leadville, the middle school is working with partners to heat its swimming pool using biomass technology.

"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 pellets.

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 natural gas.

It all depends on whether a model can be created to demonstrate that it's all economically feasible.

How it works


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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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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.

Littlepage cautions that the term "burn" doesn't accurately describe the technology used, and it also connotes a dirtier form of energy production.

"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 commercially viable.

"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 regular basis.

"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 amiller@vaildaily.com.

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