Biomass Plant Proposed in Vail

Pine beetle problem could offer valuable alternative energy solutions to Vail Valley.
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Driving through Vail, Colorado, the colors of the landscape are impossible to ignore. Glancing out of a car window you cant help but notice the crystal clear water, blue skies, green vegetation and… rusty red trees?

With nearly 80 percent of the lodge pole pine trees in the Vail Valley expected to die within the next four years, the mountain pine beetle is relentlessly killing off densely forested old growth pine trees in the region and as a result devastating the forest. While the possibility of ski area expansion exists in the coming years, more pressing questions are being addressed, like what to do with all of the region’s potentially dangerous pine trees and biomass (material consisting of living or previously living organisms, that can be used to generate electricity and heat). Even if the trees are removed from the forest, an extremely difficult task due to lack of access roads and rugged terrain, the question of what to do with the dead trees has become an increasingly relevant topic of discussion. One of the more rational solutions seems to be a proposed biomass facility.

According to Kristen Bertuglia, the town of Vail’s environmental sustainability coordinator, the possibility of a biomass facility is “an attempt to utilize a locally renewable and currently dying resource (pine beetle-killed trees) to offset the carbon emissions associated with the intensive energy uses in our resort community in the most thermally efficient way possible. The ongoing spread of the beetle infestation is only worsened by warming temperatures, and we face the threat of wildfire and devastated watersheds here in the Valley, as in many other places."

The proposed facility could operate by making woodchips out of beetle-kill pines that would then be gasified.  The resulting gas—syngas—is then combusted in a boiler. That high-pressure steam is then sent through a turbine which generates energy that feeds back into the power grid. Additionally, the exhaust from the steam is condensed into hot water and transported through miles of underground snowmelt pipes around the community to keep walkways safe.

In August 2009, the town of Vail first offered its support to a private energy-contracting firm, Hayden-Carey and King, which was seeking federal funding to build a biomass facility on the eastern edge of town. The new facility would not only offset natural gas and electric used for snowmelt and domestic water in public buildings, but could also offer “a reduction in carbon emissions of over 17,000 tons per year; the creation of new permanent jobs; and an ability to showcase a model for efficiency and sustainability energy use that can be used by other communities,” according to a Town of Vail press release. Nearly a year later, after a hopeful but rejected first proposal (which made it to the final three of eighty total applicants for a federal grant) the funding ultimately fell through. But the project is not dead, according to Bertuglia. “The Project Developer, Andrew King, applied for a $26 million grant from the National Energy Technology Labrator, which was denied last month, yet the project lives on. Andrew and the project stakeholders are investigating new funding sources and financing opportunities, such as government guaranteed loans.”

The town of Vail has long made strides to establish itself as an environmental leader and demonstrate its national forest stewardship, but with lack of federal funding, the question remains as to whether or not the project is feasible, even though it currently boasts the support of the United States Forest Service, The Denver Water Board, Holy Cross Energy, Vail Resorts and Senator Mark Udall. Funding aside, other valid concerns have been raised ranging from how long the facility will be able to operate off of the readily available biomass (The USFS and DOE have been working on a study profiling the supply of beetle killed wood in Western Colorado) to the amount of noise pollution logging trucks will generate, and there is always the concern of how a less dense canopy in the forest will impact powder days.

For more info about the proposed biomass plant click here for a PDF.