A nonprofit environmental group is teaming up with Arapahoe Basin to explore the idea of using bark-beetle affected timber as an energy source.
A-Basin chief operating officer Alan Henceroth called the alternative fuel source "fascinating." However, before moving forward, A-Basin will conduct an energy audit and feasibility study, he said.
The Blue Knight Group, a nonprofit specializing in alternative fuel infrastructure, promotes biomass as a sustainable and economically feasible solution to the surplus of timber.
"The U.S. Forest Service doesn't know what to do about the dead timber - they're talking about burning these piles of timber when we could be utilizing it as an energy source," said Rich Dziomba, director of the BKG.
Dziomba, Henceroth and Rob Davis, president of Forest Energy Corporation, toured a biomass setup Wednesday at Fairplay High School, a 120,000-square foot building heated entirely by biomass.
"We're on a fact-finding mission," Henceroth said. "A few things have caught our eye: The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and our reductions in heating costs are very attractive, and I think anything that can take advantage of locally produced or available resources is good - there appears to be no shortage of biomass available in Summit County."
The biomass system at Fairplay High School, which was installed in February, has been successful, according to school officials.
"We're looking at a seven-year payback on the initial investment," said Foss Smith, the Park County School District facilities committee member. "It's the economic advantage of biomass versus propane that makes this a great energy source - plus it's all local forestry being utilized."
Part of the biomass broiler installation requires a feasibility study and energy audit through which businesses may be required to add insulation and other energy-saving features to ensure maximum efficiency.
Along with a broiler, a business needs a wood chip storage bin. Available space at Arapahoe Basin is the main concern with a biomass energy makeover, as the ski area's base area is limited.
Jan Burque, the forest vegetation program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the availability of timber suggests such biomass systems are indeed sustainable in the long term.
"Trees are renewable, but at a slower rate," Burque said. "There are a lot of potential products for these types of projects. What's good about biomass energy is that broilers can burn parts of the tree that are not typically useful, so there is actually a lot of sources for biomass-energy projects to be sustainable for the long term - it may take creativity and pursuing a variety of sources."
Davis said such small, start-up biomass projects, like the proposed system at A-Basin, would alleviate economical barriers in forest health management.
"If someone would pay for this available material, it would help the Forest Service's economics and allow them to do more work as opposed to having to pay someone to do work and then it just gets piled into teepees on Swan Mountain Road," Davis said. "Now we have someone that would give us something for the timber, and that enables the Forest Service to do more in their management plan."
Forest Service officials say mitigating bark beetle-affected timber and creating a market for trees removed for forest thinning will bolster current efforts of the agency.
"The bark beetle epidemic has sparked a lot of creativity among environmentalists and entrepreneurs that are in a hurry to utilize the timber," Burque said. "It's great food for thought."
Henceroth still has his reservations though.
"It's very impressive equipment and there's obviously a lot that can be done with it," Henceroth said. "But it appears to be complicated."