Biomass project report released |

Biomass project report released

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Can the County Commons near Frisco and the new hospital campus be heated with wood chips culled from local forests, and will the impact to air quality be minimal?

A new report ordered by the Board of County Commissioners seems to answer in the affirmative on both counts.

Tuesday, the Board heard a full report on what the impact to air quality would be locally if the county constructed a two-stack bio-fuels facility adjacent to the County Commons near Frisco. There, wood chips and slash would be burned in a modern wood-fired boiler, creating steam and consequent energy that could be used to heat a total of seven buildings near the plant ” including county buildings and the new hospital campus set to open in December.

The air quality report presented Tuesday by an independent environmental assessment found that although wood combustor emissions were slightly greater than fuel oil or natural gas emissions, those differences “were fairly minor.” Those findings should set the stage for further public discussion on the project.

Commissioner Bill Wallace has been in front of the proposed biomass project since last year, after seeing firsthand a smaller-scale success in nearby Nederland, where a bio-fuels plant heats a small community center.

The commissioners are taking a hard look at biomass technology mostly as a way to create a new market for all the wood waste and slash that continues to pile up in local forests. The hope is that there will then be an economic incentive for people to clear wood waste and thus create healthier, safer forests. Using that wood waste and slash would in turn save valuable space at the county landfill.

The potential of alternative fuel sources has been forced center stage lately, as world events have shed new light on the delicate balance between gasoline and natural gas supply and demand. Also exposed is how fragile a society reliant on fossil fuel consumption really is.

More directly, natural gas prices are set to skyrocket ” as much as 70 percent in some cases ” according to projections from Xcel Energy.

Throughout the process, though, questions have lingered about the effects a wood-burning plant would have on air quality locally. Commissioners now have at least tentative answers to some of these questions.

The commissioners and county officials were given a presentation Tuesday by Howard Gebhart, a meteorologist with environmental consultants Air Resource Specialists, Inc. of Fort Collins, the firm commissioned to specifically research air quality issues related to the proposed biomass plant. After months of research, Gebhart told commissioners a few things:

n Wood combustor emissions are slightly higher for pollutants compared to natural gas or fuel oil, but all fuels have small emissions. The emissions from a wood-boiler system would impact air quality by releasing amounts of nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter, but those amounts are far below national ambient air quality standards.

But for Summit County ” where pure clean air is not only desired, it is demanded ” that national baseline might not apply to our raised standards.

Commissioner Bob French openly wondered whether citizens would accept “a plant that could not be built inside a national park.” Gebhart said that at the predicted emissions, the project would not meet standards set for wilderness areas like Rocky Mountain National Park or the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness area.

n Hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions would be small. Gebhart predicted that the most significant emissions would be acrolein, benzene and formaldehyde with a wood-fired system, but based on current EPA emissions standards, these amounts are “very small.”

n Although the combustion of biomass increases “greenhouse gases” or carbon dioxide emissions, in the big picture, overall emissions are significantly lower than conventional fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. In terms of emissions, the carbon dioxide released from a wood-fired boiler is comparable to that from fossil fuels. Wood combustion, though, is considered “carbon dioxide neutral” as trees actually use up greenhouse gases during their growth cycle. By that logic, Gebhart estimated net carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 3,000 to 5,000 tons per year. As comparison, 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide enter the Earth’s atmosphere because of human activity every year.

n Any impacts would be highly localized near the source. Gebhart maintained that through data study, the biggest impact in terms of air quality would be immediately near the biomass plant itself, and areas like downtown Frisco, Dillon Reservoir and other parts of the county would not see a direct impact. Still in question are impacts to neighborhoods like Bill’s Ranch in Frisco, and how people who would work at the new hospital and the County Commons buildings might be affected.

Looking ahead, a public forum on the issue is planned for a later date. The county will also post the new air quality report on its website sometime soon. It will be the public that determines how quickly the Board moves on the plan, if at all.

At the meeting, Commissioner Wallace hoped that if all goes smoothly, the biomass plant could be operational by the winter of 2006-2007. He also indicated that the Board should look into the possibility that federal funding might be available for the project based on new set-asides for alternative energy projects.

While acknowledging that a lengthy public process would likely be necessary to move forward with the project, Wallace urged the Board not to wait, and that “if we don’t move forward on this, we are making a mistake. Period.”

Duffy Hayes can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 250, or at

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