The topic of biomass is heating up around Eagle County these days.
Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced approval of a $40 million loan guarantee to Eagle Valley Clean Energy LLC to finance a renewable generating plant in Gypsum. The plant will utilize wood chips for fuel and will have a capacity of 11.5 megawatts, enough to power nearly 10,000 homes. The grant is part of the USDA's Rural Development initiative.
"We're pleased to confirm receipt of a loan guarantee commitment in the amount of $40 million from the Rural Utilities Service," said Dean Rostrom, a principal of EVCE. "The loan guarantee will be used to support long-term financing of the power plant, which would come into effect following completion of construction. This is an important piece in the overall effort to piece together the financing for the project and to complete the necessary milestones."
On Oct. 2, Eagle County Commissioners formalized a deal to donate wood waste at the landfill to the biomass plant.
"This is a mutually beneficial arrangement," said Ken Whitehead, director of Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling. "We will save about $15,000 per year in what we normally pay to have wood waste mulched."
The primary resource for the biomass power plant, however, would be "junk wood" that is collected and chipped in the forest before being hauled to the plant to be burned for electricity generation.
"We would not be harvesting healthy wood or competing with logging," Rostrom said last spring.
A biomass plant burns biological material to produce electricity. That is most commonly done by heating water with the burning material to produce steam, which turns a turbine that produces electricity, a process referred to as direct combustion. Biomass plants are most prevalent along the Pacific coast and, assuming it is built, Gypsum's will be the first commercial grade biomass power plant of its kind in Colorado.
After approving the agreement between the landfill and EVCE, Commissioner Sara Fisher brought up health and environment concerns expressed to her by some Gypsum residents.
"I would ask you to meet with Ray Merry (Director of Eagle County Health) to talk about those concerns," she told Whitehead. "I've talked about the plant as a positive thing in the past and I want to make sure I can still say it's a positive."
Merry pointed out that the county has no jurisdiction over the biomass operations.
"The state regulates emissions and the town of Gypsum approves land use," he said.
The 33,000-square-foot biomass plant will be located next to the 345,000-square-foot American Gypsum plant and will be operational around the fall of 2014. Of the 11.5 MW it will produce annually, 1.5 MW will be used to power the plant itself. The remaining 10 MW will be sold to Holy Cross Energy. A 20-year electricity sales agreement is in place.
The plant would burn about 70,000 tons of bone-dry wood chips per year. Most of the ash from the burning wood - 99.5 percent - would be filtered out of the air by multiple-cyclone and electrostatic precipitator technology. What escapes would not be visible. The collected ash - about a dump-truck load every few days - would be sold as fertilizer or sent to the landfill.
So far, the biomass plant has been mostly touted as a win-win situation for many entities. Several local jobs will be created, surrounding forest areas will benefit from fire mitigation due to wood fuels being collected and the energy is labeled "carbon neutral," meaning the fuel replenishes naturally as opposed to being mined like coal.
Some critics of the plant debate that definition of "carbon neutral," among other things such as air and water pollution. So far the most vocal opponents of the plant who live in Gypsum have declined to go on record but a website is being updated about once a month with arguments against biomass plants. The website is http://stopgypsumbiomass.wordpress.com/.
Perhaps the most immediate concern with the plant has to do with its regulation by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It is unclear how EVCE will be officially monitored.
CDPHE Communication Director Mark Salley said he needed to confer with numerous departments within the agency before he could provide a response.