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Pot smoke is in, wildfire smoke is out
By Barbara Coyner
Ever since the State of Colorado voted to legalize pot, various tourism specialists have predicted an upsurge in visitors to the state. That means marijuana smoke just might become more prevalent in the air. (Those of you not familiar with
At the same time, another scent that might not be as common this summer as it was last summer, is the acrid smell of burning pine. That’s because several woody biomass projects intend to utilize those diseased and dying forests for a better purpose than air pollution and wildfires.
One predictable thing about the news these days is that every politician, at one point or another, brings up renewable energy or green energy, usually followed by comments on wind and solar. For some reason, woody biomass tends to be the ugly stepchild; however, the utilization of renewable biomass energy fits very nicely in certain niche situations. As the wise saying goes, “use it or lose it.”
Colorado Cities Put Biomass to Work
Take the City of Longmont, which puts woody biomass to use heating its county jail and five buildings making up the Parks and Open Space Department/Transportation Maintenance complex. Boulder County workers have been converting trees thinned from the Heil Valley Ranch forest into wood chips that have fueled biomass burners for a number of years now. The county complex has been heated this way since 2005, and the jail since 2010.
Boulder County thins about 100 to 150 acres of forestlands annually on the 30,000 acres of forested open spaces, and those projects contribute about 1,500 to 1,600 tons of woody material each year. County officials have said that the use of biomass-fueled boilers conforms to Boulder County’s commitment to using environmentally sustainable practices in operating buildings as energy-efficiently as possible.
Pine trees taken from Heil Valley Ranch have been part of a forest health program that includes the annual
Biomass for Biofuel
Meanwhile, Front Range Energy (based in Windsor, Colorado) is taking another approach to woody biomass, actually notching it up to the next level as biofuel. In this case, Front Range is moving away from using corn as the primary ingredient in its ethanol. Although corn was initially the fair-haired darling in promotion of ethanol, it soon became evident that using corn for fuel instead of food was hugely unpopular in the United States. True, the Environmental Protection Agency and some members of Congress have been a little late to the party on this issue, but companies like Front Range get it.
At this point, Front Range is employing a patented technology that uses wood waste instead of corn. Beginning next year, the company will convert seven percent of its production to wood waste, diminishing its corn consumption by 1.2 million bushels per year. The Colorado ethanol producer has signed a 15-year, $100 million deal with Sweetwater Energy of Rochester, New York, which will use Sweetwater’s process for turning biomass to sugars. The resulting sugars are then distilled into ethanol. Once that conversion checks out with Front Range’s goals, the company will increase its use of woody biomass each year. The primary sources of the biomass at this point will be lumber mills and Colorado’s dead and dying pine forests, supplying some good news for the struggling Colorado timber industry.
As some of the woody biomass innovators across Colorado – and the nation – chart their course in renewables, it’s encouraging to see actual progress in these niche markets. Adding to the research in this direction, Penn State has a new guide out on the subject. Check it out at http://news.psu.edu/story/142214/2013/02/06/new-guide-promotes-alternative-fuel-use-forest-products-industry.
Woody biomass clearly can be a good fit for hospitals, schools, jails, and other small to medium-sized facilities. Yes, solar and wind take the spotlight, and yes, woody biomass is relegated to a lesser position in some circles. But there is solid evidence that biomass has a place in the energy lineup, as seen by the various examples featured routinely in this column.
After Colorado’s horrendous fire season last year, and the devastation it wreaked on the state, it could be that there will be a lot less wildfire smoke this summer due to prudent thinning and logging. Given the state’s new liberalized pot laws, there might instead be a new type of smoke in the air, which some tourism promoters see as a good thing … maybe.
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