Colorado’s dead trees left to rot
Winter Park Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
GRAND COUNTY, Colorado ” The fact that a Colorado company broke ground in Georgia on the nation’s first commercial wood-based ethanol plant begs the question: Why not in Colorado?
With the goal of reducing America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years, the U.S. Department of Energy invested in so-called “biorefineries” last year. Collectively, $385 million went to six companies throughout the U.S.
Range Fuels of Broomfield, backed by a venture company, was one of them. Last month, Range Fuels broke ground for the country’s first commercial non-food-based biomass fuels producer.
The plant is expected to churn out a consumptive level of transportation fuels from agricultural waste, trees, forest residues, and perennial grasses ” technology racing to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Similar plants supported by the Energy Department may pop up in Kansas, Florida, California, Iowa and Idaho.
This year the growing U.S. ethanol industry will provide more than 6 billion gallons of clean-burning fuel for our country’s supply, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol, mostly from corn.
Some experts contend that ethanol from corn is a transitional fuel, whereas advanced biofuel from wood product and farm waste, including corn fibers, stovers and kernels, is considered the next revolution in fuels.
The nation’s forest and agricultural lands can sustainably produce 1.3 billion tons of biomass each year, according to the Energy Department, reducing America’s gasoline use by half.
The key is cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls and the most common organic compound on earth. Breaking down cellulose to convert it into usable sugars is the recipe for ethanol production.
During its pilot phase, Range Fuels plans to harvest dead timber and convert it to about 20 million gallons of ethanol. Once it reaches full-scale operations, it could produce up to 100 million gallons of ethanol each year, necessitating about 1,200 tons per day of wood material.
Range Fuel’s Web site addresses the company’s aim to locate its first and future refineries near biomass sources to limit transportation fuel wastes.
At first glance, the material produced from Colorado’s pine beetle in the Rocky Mountain Region seems a perfect fit for the company.
But it’s not quite that cut and dry, says Craig Jones, biomass specialist with the
Colorado State Forest Service.
Even with beetle-kill trees, “We couldn’t feed it,” he said.
When factoring in wilderness lands, National Parks and private lands, 30 percent of forests that could be harvested remain. Throw in a climate of resistance to build new roads on federal and state forest lands, plus steep topography limiting access to trees deep within, and prospects for such a plant become less attractive.
Boiling it all down, it isn’t economically feasible.
For one, Colorado is in a drought zone, and a cellulosic ethanol plant needs a guaranteed supply of water. Also, the state lacks timber industries, with only one major timber mill in the state.
With a high, dry altitude making for a short growing season, Colorado trees are slow to mature. Also, the existing standing dead timber has about an eight-year window to be processed before it’s too late. The sugar molecule in wood is needed to produce ethanol ” rotten wood is useless, Jones said.
Georgia, he surmised, was attractive to Range Fuels for its abundant forests and established timber industries (with pulp mills, saw mills and furniture making). Other states attracted start-up plants for sites near feedstocks, such as sorted green and wood waste in a California landfill and agricultural waste in the Midwest.
The technology behind wood-based ethanol is still far from producing fuel affordable enough to sell to consumers, Jones said, but the research is gaining.
In Canada, Iogen Corporation produces just over a million gallons annually of cellulose ethanol from wheat, oat and barley straw in their demonstration facility, according to The Renewable Fuels Association. The U.S. is close behind.
“It’s a big answer to our fuel problem,” Jones said.
But Colorado may get left out on the front end, even though the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden is leading in the science behind cellulose ethanol.
Most forestry experts agree, until the product is pumped into cars throughout the nation, optimistically in 15 years, Jones predicts, Colorado won’t see a cellulosic plant.
Even then, any plant would be small, producing advanced biofuels for a local market, he said.
For immediate reprieve from wood waste mounting in the high country, however, Bio-fuels and Local Fuels Program Manager Stacey Simms of Gov. Bill Ritter’s Energy Office, says citizens should focus on sustainable and applicable ways to use beetle-kill trees for heat.
For now, it’s pellet plants and wood burning stoves.
“We think here in Colorado, for immediate ways to utilize it, we’re most excited about it for heating purposes, reducing fossil fuels for thermal applications,” she said.