Construction has begun on a biomass power plant adjacent to the American Gypsum wallboard factory in Gypsum that town and state officials hope other Colorado communities will emulate in order to cope with Colorado’s growing bark-beetle epidemic.
“I’m hoping that [the Gypsum plant] becomes a catalyst for other biomass plants around the state to help address forest health management,” Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll said of the 11.5-megawatt electric and heat power plant expected to open by the end of the year.
“Look at Colorado Springs and Fort Collins this summer,” Shroll said, referring to last summer’s devastating wildfires. “Do you want to manage forest health that way? And talk to those people on the Front Range who breathed that garbage [smoke] in for a month. Or would you like for us to start managing the forest?”
The power plant, which last fall landed a $40 million federal loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will convert woods chips into enough electricity and heat to power the wallboard plant and still put 10 megawatts into the Holy Cross Energy grid.
“[The power plant] does something for beetle kill, it creates jobs locally within our service territory and it’s a renewable resource,” Holy Cross Energy CEO Del Worley said. “We saw it as kind of a win-win.”
Holy Cross Energy is a member-owned rural electric co-op that provides power to about 55,000 customers in the Western Slope counties of Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Gunnison and Mesa.
The U.S. Forest Service in November awarded $13.4 million in stewardship contracts to two Western Slope companies to remove beetle-killed trees from the White River and Medicine Bow-Routt national forests. The two 10-year contracts will clear dead trees from about 20,000 acres of public land, and much of the wood will be converted into power at the new Gypsum facility.
One of those companies, West Range Reclamation of Hotchkiss, landed an $8.66 million contract to clear about 1,000 acres a year in the White River National Forest, where forest officials will identify areas most in need of fuel reduction.
“What’s so exciting and what makes that win-win situation is we’re getting the work done out on the ground that needs to be done and then because of this 10-year contract now we can find uses for that material that support businesses, provide jobs and in this case provide renewable green energy,” West Range Reclamation spokeswoman Pam Motley said.
Motley said some lumber-quality trees will be removed and transported to mills. Only small-diameter dead trees will be chipped up for consumption in Gypsum.
State Sen. Gail Schwartz, whose district includes much of the Holy Cross Energy service area and huge swaths of dead and dying national forest, is working on a bill this session to create a thermal standard like the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS). The legislation would provide incentives for technologies like biomass, geothermal and solar thermal that generate heat.
Biomass power, which is considered a renewable resource in the state’s RPS, is seen by many as a way to productively reduce fuel loads in the wildland urban interface (WUI) where towns meet forestland in Colorado and up to 40 percent of the state’s population currently resides.
“We have upwards of 7 million acres of standing dead timber in the state and the threat of blowdowns and fires,” Schwartz said. “We have models in Pagosa Springs and Gypsum how we can produce power, but we need to make that a competitive resource and be able to get our purchase agreements.”
It takes visionary rural electric associations (REAs) to make it happen, Schwartz added.
“When you have progressive REAs like La Plata or Holy Cross, they’re willing to recognize that their service area is so vulnerable to fires,” Schwartz said, “and that’s why we need to promote new technologies around biomass -- promote the heat side of it -- to make our communities and our watersheds and infrastructure more secure by getting those fuels out of those areas.”
Ski towns like Vail and Avon have unsuccessfully tried to pursue biomass power in recent years, modeling proposals after carbon-neutral facilities in Europe. Vail failed to land a Department of Energy grant for its facility.
There was little local opposition to the Gypsum facility, which has secured all of its local land-use approvals. However, Mike Ewall of Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, said burning trees for power isn’t much better than burning coal.
“If we’re just looking at the emissions alone, is a coal plant better in terms of emissions or is it better in terms of global warming to burn coal and plant trees as opposed to burning trees and planting trees? Yeah, coal is actually less dangerous, except for pollutants like mercury and sulfur,” Ewall said. “But we would never, ever, ever say it’s better to have a coal plant.”
Ewall, whose group started out battling new coal-fired power plants, explained that he’d prefer the millions of dollars being spent on biomass instead be pumped into energy conservation measures, wind, solar and energy storage to eliminate the need to burn anything to produce power.
However, proponents of biomass argue that decomposing dead trees emit methane, while forest fires generate huge amounts of carbon dioxide – both of which significantly warm the planet.
“Because those trees are going back into the carbon cycle one way or another, might as well get power from them,” said Auden Schendler, director of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company, which supports the Gypsum biomass plant.
The Gypsum biomass power plant is being built by a Utah compamy, Eagle Valley Clean Energy LLC. Representatives did not return calls requesting comment.