Innovations Turn a Rocky Mountain Disaster into a Clean Energy Opportunity
On a morning in early March, I ride with Cody Neff, owner of West Range Reclamation (WRR), in his truck from Frisco, Colorado, to the company’s nearby worksite in the White River National Forest. Light is just starting to reach over the high snow-covered slopes surrounding Frisco, but Neff is awake and ready to talk. He tells me that originally it was a love of cattle, not forests, that brought him west to the University of Wyoming, where he studied rangeland ecology while raising beef on a piece of leased land outside Laramie. Now, fifteen years later, he’s running a fifty-employee company and supervising forestry projects on Colorado’s Front Range and in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. It’s a position he didn’t necessarily imagine for himself, but one that he has taken on with enthusiasm.
Neff and wife, Stephanie—who Neff credits for his success—started WRR in 2001. They saw a need for what Neff calls responsible and beneficial rangeland and forest management.
From behind the steering wheel, Neff interrupts himself to point out areas on the slopes where the company has completed projects. As he steers up the rough road, he takes phone calls, fields questions, and jots notes for himself on the pad of paper nested in the truck’s console.
When we turn off the main highway and bump slowly along the temporary dirt road that winds up the mountain, Neff points out tightly packed, small-diameter lodgepole pine as illustrative of the problems of this forest. The stands of thin trees are all the same species, the same age, and all are competing for the same resources, susceptible to the same pests. These stands are an easy target for bark beetles. Out the passenger window, I see the impact. Dead trees stand like skeletons among the green.
At the road’s end, the forest opens into a clearing where a fleet of machinery cuts, hauls, and chips trees marked by the Forest Service for removal. Neff hands me a hardhat and a neon vest to put on before we walk over to the semi parked on the edge of the clearing.
He directs me to the ladder on the side of the truck’s trailer and I climb up. The view from the top offers a panorama of the forest: the distant slopes show cleared patches from other recent forestry projects, while the surrounding dense forest is dotted with dead trees left in the wake of the bark beetle. On the acre of land directly below me, machinery dominates a flat lot covered with snow, stumps, and piles of logs that, a few hours ago, were a stand of lodgepole pine. Before dawn the harvester, a machine headed by a large rotating saw, cut down the trees. A skidder picked up the fallen trees and piled them next to the chipper, which is parked now on the edge of the clearing. As I watch, the skidder’s claw grabs a handful of logs and feeds them into the mouth of the chipper. In front of me, the chips pour out of a high shoot into the back of the trailer.
In a day’s work, WRR will fill ten to fifteen semi truck trailers with woodchips—about 250 tons. Neff estimates about 70 percent of that is beetle-kill. The destination for these chips is not one of the WRR’s traditional markets: landscaping companies, dowel mills, pallet manufacturers. Rather than line playgrounds or gardens, these chips will be burned to generate electricity, enough to power thousands of Colorado homes.
The beetle epidemic has created a new, abundant feedstock for energy production in the form of dead trees, and now Rocky Mountain forests are a becoming a testing ground for biomass energy projects. Using dead trees to make electricity and fuel requires harvesting, transporting, and processing massive amounts of wood, and questions remain about the economic, environmental, and social feasibility of bioenergy.
Two giant challenges: forest management and energy production
Aerial photos of Rocky Mountain forests show red and gray patches marking the trail of the bark beetle epidemic. When pine or spruce beetles attack and kill trees, the needles dry out, turn red, and eventually fall, leaving a grey trunk and branches. Bark beetles have affected an estimated 42 million acres of forestland in the Rocky Mountain region since the late 1990s.
The outbreak raises questions about the future of forests, the impacts of climate change, and risks of wildfire, but the immediate question for forest managers is what to do with the acres of dead or dying stands. Leaving dead trees to eventually fall in the forest can pose risks to hikers and other outdoor recreationists and clog up roads and waterways. Tree removal, on the other hand, is costly and, given the low commercial value of beetle-killed wood, incentive to harvest stands in difficult-to-reach areas is low.
“We haven’t seen more salvage logging because there’s just a few sawmills here and there, or pellet mills, and the cost of hauling the material hundreds of miles doesn’t pay off,” says University of Wyoming researcher and botanist, Dan Tinker.
When a forest needs to be thinned and no market for the wood exists, foresters stack cut trees into slash piles. Visitors to the region’s national forests have likely seen these towering heaps of jackstrawed trees along roadsides. According to a US Forest Service report there were a total of 170,000 slash piles in Colorado’s Medicine Bow-Routt, Arapahoe-Roosevelt, and White River National Forests in 2010. Every year, hundreds to thousands of these piles are burned in Colorado’s forests alone.
Capturing that energy seems obvious. But the logistics still present huge challenges.
While turning biomass into electricity or fuel is on the rise worldwide, debate still surrounds its sustainability and economic viability. Biomass is any organic matter, including wood, agricultural crops, municipal organic wastes, and manure, used to produce energy. Bioenergy processes burn biomass to generate electricity or heat, or convert biomass into liquid or gaseous fuels, known as biofuel. As efforts to reduce carbon emissions drive the demand for bioenergy, a holistic analysis of carbon cycles and other impacts along entire energy chains requires new research, testing, and long-term monitoring.
“Biofuel is a pretty hot topic and it’s being well developed in a lot of parts of the country right now,” Tinker says. “But often it’s [made from] agricultural crops, in some cases crops that directly compete with food stock.” The most common biomass sources are agricultural crops, such as corn, sugarcane, and soybeans. (In developing nations, wood is also commonly burned for cooking or heat.)
Bioenergy projects in the Rocky Mountains may offer a solution for forest managers grappling with how to manage stands of beetle-kill trees. Currently, the supply is abundant. Because beetle outbreaks are cyclic, Tinker says there could be a continuous supply into the future, though predicting where and how much remains a large unknown.
Beetle kill “might be a sustainable feedstock for biofuel if the technology exists to take advantage of it, and if [harvesting and burning it is] not environmentally insensitive and damaging, if local communities and stakeholders embrace the idea,” Tinker says. “There are so many ifs.”
Entrepreneurs like Neff, and researchers like Tinker, are now testing these “ifs.” New biomass projects are trying to overcome the challenges associated with feedstock location and management, transportation, financing, scale and technology, community receptiveness, and ecological impacts.
Turning trees into energy
The woodchips pouring into the truck bed in the White River National Forest will be hauled 70 miles to a new biomass plant in Gypsum, Colorado.
Colorado’s Climate Action Plan calls for a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. To help achieve this goal, in 2011 utility company Hope Cross Energy issued a call for proposals from developers for a 10-megawatt renewable energy plant. Hope Cross Energy selected a proposal by Evergreen Clean Energy to contract a biomass plant called Eagle Valley Clean Energy, fed in part by beetle-killed trees.
The plant started operating in December 2013 but the partnerships that make the plant possible were in place years before. Eagle Valley partnered with WRR while in the development process to supply woodchips for the plant. In 2013, the White River National Forest awarded WRR a ten-year stewardship contract, securing a reliable supply of fuel to power the biomass plant.
Stewardship contracts differ from timber sales (where contractors bid on stands of commercial lumber) and service contracts (where the Forest Service pays contractors to complete a thinning). Stewardship contracts are, in some ways, a combination of the two. The Forest Service pays contractors for prescribed thinning, and the high-value timber removed offsets some of the cost to the Forest Service. Stewardship contracts may also be awarded for longer periods than service contracts, up to ten years. The contract in the White River National Forest guarantees WWR at least 1,000 acres of forest for thinning each year. This wood, along with waste lumber from a local landfill, powers Eagle Valley Clean Energy.
Securing a local feedstock is the first hurdle for any biomass project. The second is getting the feedstock to the plant. For Neff’s operation, transportation is costly, and therefore, carefully considered. To remain profitable, the company trucks wood no farther than one hundred miles.
The Eagle Valley Clean Energy plant produces electricity using boiler technology. It burns the woodchips to heat water into high-pressure steam, which spins the blades of a turbine-driven generator. Boiler technology is the most common method of converting biomass into electricity. The technology is tested and reliable, making it a low-risk investment.
“We carefully evaluated a broad spectrum of technology for this project,” Evergreen Clean Energy chairman Dean Rostrom says. “In the end, we concluded that ‘old school’ boiler technology, with the addition of latest innovations for efficient combustion and emissions control, offered the best choice. It has been proven over many decades, is far beyond the testing and proving stage of the other emerging technologies, is more cost efficient, has a wealth of experts available for engineering and constructing, as well as ongoing repairs and improvements, and ultimately is the most financeable and reliable technology available.”
Partnerships, a reliable feedstock, financing and well-tested technology were the big factors that got this project off the ground, making it the first all-biomass plant in the state.
While Eagle Valley offers one model for future bioenergy plants, it’s not the only way. Renewable energy company Cool Planet will soon begin to test a different method of bioenergy production, also using beetle-killed wood.
Cool Planet takes a different approach to securing and transporting feedstock. Rather than setting up one centralized plant, the company uses “micro-refineries”—temporary plants that can be installed near a feedstock—to manufacture biofuels, which are trucked away and sold, like fossil fuels, to burn in vehicles or to generate heat. The company’s demo site in California looks less like an industrial plant and more like a row of parked trailers on a half-acre of land. The model cuts transportation time and costs and could make biomass projects more feasible in out-of-the-way areas.
The technology is relatively new. The company has run small tests using corn stover and non-food energy crops, and in the next few years, they’ll scale up the model, building micro-refineries throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
Cool Planet makes fuel using technology called “bio-fractionation.” This technology is used to produce fuels through a process known as pyrolysis in which the micro-refineries heat up woody biomass—in this case beetle-killed trees—under extreme pressure. That forces hydrocarbons to steam out of the wood. Next, a catalyst facilitates thermochemical decomposition that converts these complex hydrocarbons into simple hydrocarbons. The process results in two end products: biofuel and biochar, porous chunks of leftover plant matter.
Farmers can plow biochar into their soil where it helps retain water and nutrients. In addition, because biochar is pure carbon, burying it in the soil keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Despite the small size of plants, the output is significant. Each micro-refinery has the potential to produce 10 million gallons of fuel per year.
Problem solving for bioenergy projects
Eagle Valley Clean Energy’s energy capacity, 10 megawatts, is minimal in comparison with coal-fired power stations, which average 500 megawatts. This plant’s small size is by design. If bioenergy continues to expand in the region, developers will have to address issues of scale. Potentially, small biomass plants could be built throughout the region. Scaling plants to produce more electricity, however, would require careful planning in terms of feedstock location and relative supply.
In an article published in Science in 2010, Tom Richard addresses the challenges of scaling up biomass energy projects to increase worldwide renewable energy production without detrimental environmental impacts. “The logistics of harvest, storage, processing, and transport weave a complex web of interactions that will require massive investments in research, development, demonstration and deployment to scale up biomass energy systems to meet societal goals,” Richard writes.
Both Eagle Valley and Cool Planet have developed ways to address the technical logistics of bioenergy production, but how bioenergy projects interact with ecosystems and local communities presents a new set of questions.
This is where Tinker comes in—he and other researchers from the University of Wyoming and four other universities have partnered with Cool Planet to assess the feasibility and the environmental and social impacts of biofuel production. The consortium, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR), received a $10 million US Department of Agriculture grant to study biofuel production from beetle kill wood.
Teams of researchers from regional universities are working under five categories: feedstock supply; feedstock logistics and processing; system performance and sustainability; education; and extension, outreach, health and safety. Tinker is leading the task group on ecological assessment, part of the system performance and sustainability team. His team will analyze the environmental impact of biofuel production.
Over the five-year research period, BANR will gather the data necessary to measure the overall carbon footprint of Cool Planet’s biofuel production. Currently, BANR is assessing potential feedstock sources. The goal is to conduct trials on forests in a range of ownerships, including national, state, and private forests.
After the first trials, Tinker and his team will assess the environmental impacts of harvesting the trees. Tinker is optimistic about the project but careful not to jump to any conclusions about its environmental sustainability.
“Anything that has a potential environmental impact, that’s what my task group is charged with. The goal for this is to have no negative impact, hopefully zero impact or even a positive impact, so we’ll be monitoring all aspects of ecosystem structure and function—hydrology of soil nutrient recycling, biodiversity—to make sure that we’re doing it responsibly, and if it’s not [environmentally benign], then that’s what we’re going to report,” says Tinker.
Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming is also part of the BANR team. Like Tinker, Strauss is a co-director of the project. She is also leader of the health and safety task group and a member of the regional scale socioeconomic and policy analysis group. Her research will focus on how communities perceive biofuel production, and how they see the future of local forests. She and her team will look at historical community archives and conduct surveys and interviews.
As a social scientist, Strauss is interested in the human dimensions of climate change. How climate change causes, impact, and need for solutions are perceived can affect how projects like bioenergy production are viewed. “It’s important for people to understand this [climate change] as a human problem,” Strauss says. The BANR project, “allows us to look at climate change in terms of impacts and drivers as well as solutions.”
Strauss notes that communities in the Rocky Mountain region do not have homogenous perceptions of forest values and uses. She gives the example of a Montana community with a long-standing timber-driven economy, as opposed to a Wyoming community where there has been little timber industry activity in the past. In the Montana community, residents might be more receptive to beetle-kill-fed bioenergy projects, whereas communities without a history of timbering, and the supporting infrastructure, might resist such development.
These attitudes reflect how people view forestlands—as intrinsically valuable, as recreational land, as an economic resource, or as some combination of the three—and influence how forests are managed. Understanding how communities throughout the Rocky Mountain region think about climate change and forest management could steer location of future bioenergy projects and help the BANR team target areas for educational outreach.
The goal is to take a big-picture approach, to analyze biofuel production not only as an economic endeavor but also to zoom out and look at interactions in the “web” Science contributor Richard refers to.
Our ride down the mountain is stop-and-go, not because of ruts and divots, but because, for Neff, this remote road is like a neighborhood. We stop to meet a crewmember on his way to the worksite and again to check in with an employee clearing debris from the roadside. When we come across a snowshoer, Neff puts the truck in park and hops out. “Beautiful day!” he greets the man and introduces himself.
For Neff, spreading the word about WRR’s work and the biomass power plant is a high priority. Not everyone is in favor of burning wood to generate electricity. The strongest criticisms of bioenergy production fit into three categories: concerns about climate change, air quality, and impacts to forest ecosystems.
Some critics argue that bioenergy production, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting, and processing, contributes as much to climate change as generating electricity from fossil fuels. Using beetle-killed trees instead of agricultural crops eliminates the energy needs of planting and fertilizing, but the equipment used to harvest and transport the wood does run on diesel, and the plant itself emits carbon during operation.
Bioenergy supporters claim that biomass is both renewable and carbon neutral, and therefore better for the environment than fossil fuel energy. All of the carbon released to the atmosphere when the biomass burns was captured out of the atmosphere during the plant’s life.
Strauss believes that new methods need to be tested in order to find viable alternatives to fossil fuel energy and solutions for climate change. She points out that the controlled high-temperature pyrolysis process used by Cool Planet and other companies to produce energy from biomass is far better for the environment than the current National Forest policy of burning slash piles and sending that carbon directly into the atmosphere. “We need to be looking at all the alternatives,” she says.
Some local community members and organizations are worried about how the plant’s emissions will affect human health. In a letter from Colorado’s chapter of the American Lung Association, Natalia Swalnick describes how particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compound emissions from bioenergy plants can rival or exceed those of coal plants if not properly controlled. “If biomass is combusted, state of the art pollution controls must be required,” Swalnick writes.
The Eagle Valley Clean Energy plant uses scrubber technology that offers the “latest innovations for efficient combustion and emissions control,” says Rostrum.
Proponents of bioenergy point out that burning the material in a power plant is no worse, and possibly cleaner than, burning slash piles on the forest floor without controls.
The third critique of bioenergy is how it affects ecosystems. In 2012, the community group Stop Gypsum Biomass wrote, “Industrial-scale biomass incineration is one of the greatest threats to functioning forest ecosystems today.” Forest ecosystems provide clean air and water, erosion control, and fertile soils. The group is concerned that timber harvest could damage these systems and ruin wildlife habitat. Removing dead and downed trees, for example, could eliminate habitat for species like woodpeckers and owls that nest in snags. Over the next five years, Tinker and his colleagues at BANR will study these impacts, and hopefully, provide answers to these concerns.
Meanwhile out on the forest, every encounter is an opportunity for Neff. He’s proud of his employees, of WRR’s reputation with the Forest Service, and of the work he’s doing, and he’s eager to talk about all of it. He knows that not everyone supports harvesting beetle-killed trees for energy production, but to Neff, the criticism is a matter of misunderstanding.
“There’s a large population who really looks down on what we do and feel that we’re in this for the money or trying to get everything we can out of the forest,” he says. “But we’re up here because we believe we’re helping sustain and promote a natural resource that we love more than anything, for many generations to come, and that feels really good to us.”
- Bioenergy Alliance of the Rockies http://banr.colostate.edu
- Cool Plant Energy Systems http://www.coolplanet.com
- Evergreen Clean Energy http://evergreencleanenergy.com
- West Range Reclamation http://www.westrangereclamation.com
Photos and text by Kelly Hatton
Richard, Tom L. “Challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure.” Science 13 August 2010: 329 (5993). DOI:10.1126/science.1189139
Swalnick, Natalia. American Lung Association in Colorado Letter. June 29, 2012.
Kelly Hatton is finishing her master of fine arts in creative writing and environment and natural resources at the University of Wyoming and was Western Confluence’s 2013-14 Editorial Fellow.