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Biomass could become fuel of future

JANE STEBBINSsummit daily news
Summit Daily file photo/Reid Williams Slash and lumber pile up regularly at the Summit County Landfill and are typically mulched, but that mulch could be put to use as biomass fuel.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – County Commissioner Bill Wallace cringes when he sees the reddish-brown lodgepole pine trees that have been killed by mountain pine beetle. But now, he sees those same dead trees as a possible fuel source to heat the county’s public buildings.The concept, called biomass, is hardly new, but it hasn’t been seen since the mid-1880s when America’s fuel of choice converted from organic materials to fossil fuels and natural gas. Biomass materials include such things as trees, municipal waste and sewage, manure, forestry and agricultural resides and some industrial wastes.And, on the surface, Summit County appears to have a perpetual source of biomass in the form of the forests that blanket the hills.”We could be the leader in this,” Wallace said at a commissioner work session last week. “To me, it just makes all kinds of common sense.”He visited Nederland recently to see how a biomass system there heats a 2,500-square-foot community center.There, an auger seeks out chips held in a small building and draws them onto a conveyor belt that dumps them into a container that burns the chips and provides heat to a boiler that converts water to steam.The heat is then pumped to the community center. He noted that adapting Summit County’s public buildings would require minimal effort.

In Nederland, the system runs with a 1955-vintage boiler. The auger came from a mechanical supply store. The valve lifters that help maneuver the auger came from a Chevy V8 engine.Maintenance is easy, too. A county employee would check the facility twice a day to ensure things are operating smoothly. And the system notifies officials if there is a failure.Wallace said he would love to see such a system in place by next summer.Biomass is increasingly catching the collective eyes of other municipalities as well, particularly as people become more concerned with global warming and skyrocketing fuel prices.According to the Biomass Energy Resource Association (BERA) of Barrington, Ill., the world’s biomass is about 100 times the world’s annual energy consumption. On the other hand, it takes millions of years to form fossil fuels in the Earth, making them subject to depletion as they are consumed. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is renewable because it requires a shorter period of time to replenish what is used for energy needs.BERA officials believe natural gas will be the first fuel that will come into short supply – possibly as early as 2050. That and the adverse effects of fossil fuels on the environment likely will serve as the impetus that prompts people to return to biomass fuels.The first step, however, won’t merely involve buying a boiler and hooking it up to a furnace, Wallace said.

“The first step is the fuel that’s in our forest,” he said. “A hundred years ago, Mother Nature took care of it by fire. That wouldn’t work too well right now. We have all these fuels loaded in forest – what are we going to do with it?”Wallace imagines collecting first the pine beetle-killed trees, then trees cut for fire mitigation, then dead and fallen trees could become a private-sector venture. He envisions someone contracting with the U.S. Forest Service to cut and clear areas of the forest, chipping the wood and providing it to the county.He realizes that might not sit well with many people, too.”People are going to have to realize there might be clear-cutting, but that’s what you have to do,” he said. “There are parts of the forest where the whole thing needs to be cut down. If anyone thinks we shouldn’t be managing the forest, they should drive Ute Pass to Parshall. That’s what Summit County will look like in 10 years.”That forest is a sea of reddish-brown trees killed by pine beetles.County officials want to see if a biomass system could work at the new hospital being build behind the County Commons near Frisco.Wallace said a biomass system could easily be implemented at the County Commons, the Community and Senior Center and the medical office building scheduled to be built as part of the hospital campus.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) has received a $12,000 grant from the Bureau of Land Management to study the feasibility of converting public buildings from natural gas to biomass fuels. That study is expected to be finished this fall.”We then hope to move ahead with some conclusions on public buildings,” said executive director Gary Severson. “We’re already thinning the forest and looking at ways to process the product. Now we want to have a local market for the material.”Ultimately, such a system would pay for itself in 10 years, Wallace said.”I am just pumped over this,” Wallace said. “I could get very excited about that groundbreaking and that ribbon-cutting.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.Art: photo, reidCutline: Millions of dead trees that litter the forest floors – not the mention the thousands of pine beetle-killed trees and others cut for fire mitigation – could serve as a new energy source to heat Summit County’s public buildings.


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