Summit County chipping program challenged by shuttered biomass plant
Have you seen Summit County’s bright orange “Got slash?” signs this summer?
For the second year in a row, the county chipping program is collecting trees and branches from residents with the goal of reducing flammable vegetation in people’s backyards and neighborhoods, lowering wildfire risk and helping property owners with their home insurance costs.
Summit County CSU Extension agent Dan Schroder, who heads the program, said that this year will surpass the home participation and wood collection numbers from 2014, when a contractor company trucked 44 semis full of chips from 1,480 properties to the biomass energy plant in Gypsum.
However, a fire knocked the woody biomass plant offline last December, and the plant is still under construction. Schroder said he’s now scrambling to find somewhere to take the chips before a deadline in early November.
“Ultimately, this will not be thrown away. It will be sent to some means that will put it to beneficial use,” he said, “but we’re just not sure where, and we have two months to figure it out.”
A GROWING MODEL
The program is funded this year through a $100,000 state Department of Natural Resources grant for reducing wildfire risk that the county matched with local tax money funneled through the county Wildfire Council.
Besides creating defensible space around people’s homes, the goal of the program is to remind people about wildfire risk and community protection measures at a time when some may have grown complacent now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic has subsided, Schroder said.
Local U.S. Forest Service and government officials have called defensible space especially important in Summit because the county has more properties in the wildland-urban interface than any county in the state.
The Forest Service has authorized clear-cuts and smaller cuts on national forest around the county in part to mitigate wildfire risk, but the agency put future projects on hold citing its shrinking budgets and staff.
Schroder said, “If the federal government isn’t doing projects, it ends up coming down to individual landowners.”
In 2014, participation far exceeded expectations. The county had to bring on five contractors whose crews were out collecting slash at the same time, and one house put out 85 trees’ worth, he said.
2015 participation has exceeded last year’s total by about 300 homes, as of tallies through the eighth week of the 14-week program. Roughly 1,750 homes have put out piles of slash for the chipping crews so far, and only 250 homes have put out slash in both years.
“Almost all of this year’s participation is new. They’re not return customers, if you will,” he said.
Based on GIS mapping, most property owners putting out slash this year were likely inspired by neighbors doing it last year.
The program has been praised by other communities, and Schroder and County Commissioner Dan Gibbs presented the unique method for reducing wildfire risk on private properties at a Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative meeting last October.
This fall, Schroder will drive to Montrose to speak at a meeting of the Wildfire Council of the Western Region, which represents six West Slope counties that are interested in copying the program next year.
Howard Hallman, a longtime Summit resident who leads a local group called the Forest Health Task Force, said he supports the program because, besides engaging private property owners in defensible space efforts, it also allows local wildfire mitigation experts to better understand where risk may be concentrated.
Home insurance companies have been slow to recognize local risk-reduction efforts in their decisions about whether to insure properties and how much to charge. His task force has been facilitating conversations this year about how insurers can catch up.
“It should be beneficial if people take advantage of the chipping program and they are able to reduce their wildfire hazard. That should be rewarded in terms of insurability and rates, you would think,” he said. “There’s been kind of a lag.”
BIOMASS AND BACKUPS
The wood chips must be put to some beneficial use, per the chipping program’s grant requirements, so Schroder has outlined some contingency plans in case the Gypsum biomass plant can’t accept the chips in time.
He must remove the chips, which are now stored on public lands in Breckenridge, Dillon and Silverthorne, before the ground under them is needed for winter parking and snow storage, and the biomass plant can’t store the chips until it comes back online.
Schroder said the chips may instead be used for one or more other purposes, which range from a county road project in Heeney to Freeport-McMoRan mine reclamation to school playground mulch. Nonprofits and for-profit companies may be interested in the chips, and he said they will go to whoever can take them before Nov. 7.
At the very least, he said the chips will be composted at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park near Keystone, but the biomass plant is the first choice.
“We would prefer to see the chips be made into electricity,” he said. “People like the idea of creating alternate energy sources.”
Though touted by most government officials, woody biomass energy has some strong critics.
As biomass energy production has grown exponentially around the U.S. in recent years, so has opposition to the industry and the subsidies it receives, which critics say should be directed toward true renewable energy from sources including solar, wind and hydro.
No money is exchanged when the chips are hauled to the woody biomass plant in Gypsum, which means the plant gets fuel for free. Schroder said he didn’t want to jeopardize the fledgling program if no one wanted to pay for the chips, and the county didn’t need to charge because of the grant funding.
The biomass plant should be functioning again sometime between late October and the end of the year, said Amanda Shelley, who works with West Range Reclamation, the hauling company that contracts with the plant. When it comes back online, she said, it will be able to process more biomass than before and produce more energy.
For more information about the chipping program, visit visit co.summit.co.us/chippingprogram or contact Summit County CSU Extension agent Dan Schroder at (970) 668-4140 or Dan.Schroder@summitcountyco.gov.
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