SUMMIT COUNTY – Back in 2002, the eco-friendly town of Nederland took a leap of environmental faith. It commissioned a project that would generate heat and power for a series of community buildings by burning wood waste from Colorado forests. Three years later, that leap has turned out to be a belly flop.”It’s the third year into this thing, and now it’s like, let’s just cut our losses,” said Jim Stevens, Nederland town administrator. “We’re going back to a natural gas boiler.”Summit County, meanwhile, may be about to embark on an ambitious project that would heat a new hospital and several buildings in Frisco by burning wood chips instead of natural gas. The process is called “biomass” engineering because natural, earthen sources are used as a primary source of fuel. And it is an alternative source of energy that is gaining attention across the United States. Summit County is still a ways away from breaking ground on any new biomass project. The wheels were set in motion last year by County Commissioner Bill Wallace, who has led the effort to bring biomass to Summit County. Early estimates put the project price at about $2 million.
“Where we are to date is, we’ve tried to show that it is feasible both technically and economically,” said Steve Hill, special projects manager for the county. “We’re in the final stages of showing that it will work from an environmental standpoint,”Nederland’s burn outNederland once held similar ambitions. Today, however, those aspirations seem long forgotten.”We’re looking to ideally sell the whole thing as a package, to get the most money out of (the system) as we can,” Stevens said. So far, the town of Nederland has sunk more than $470,000 into their system – made up of a boiler, a burner, pumps and valves, an auger, and a conveyor system designed to automatically feed wood fuels into a firebox.Nederland’s system is a bit different than the one proposed for Summit County, in that their biomass plant was anticipated to generate both heat and electricity – a promise made by system designers Delta Dynamics of Denver.
“Delta Dynamics promised we would get electricity, we would get heat and we would be automated,” Stevens said. “We never got electricity, and when we got heat, it wasn’t much.”Two major issues wracked Nederland’s biomass project. Most problematic was how the system handled (or didn’t handle) different types and sizes of fuel stock. Wood chips that were not uniform in size and moisture content, in addition to foreign objects like green twigs, dirt and rocks, would grind the system to a halt as pipes became clogged and backed up.”We’re in the middle of the forest, but somehow we don’t have enough good wood,” Stevens said.Second, when the system would jam up, a town employee had to clear out the system and get things moving again. Additional manpower was also needed to maintain a steady supply of wood fuel to the system.”What was supposed to be an automatic operation turned out to take two or three men to oversee it,” Stevens said. “One operator was not enough. It took one to be there all the time, to make sure everything was working, and another one to be loading the chips, and still another one to be trucking them in.”While Nederland town officials put much of the blame on the vendor, Delta Dynamics, the company has a much different take on why the system ultimately failed.
“The fuel supply out of Nederland was just terrible,” said Sev Bonnie, a vice president with Delta Dynamics. Bonnie said wet wood supply was a major hindrance to the success of the system. He said Nederland regularly used wood waste with water contents as high as 35 percent or 40 percent. When the wood fuel is that moist, much energy goes to burning off the excess moisture.Estimates show that most of the wood waste locally in Summit County has a moisture content of around 40 percent, Hill said.Bonnie also regrets not building a larger system in Nederland, saying, “If that plant maybe was twice the size, we could have (generated heat and electricity). But as it was, we were sort of right on the cusp of what we could actually continually produce.”Bonnie also claims Nederland didn’t maintain the system effectively, leading to part and general system failure.”We didn’t have any failures on our side of the equation,” Bonnie said. “All of the stoppages were due to fuel quality and maintenance issues.”He also cited turnover in the mayor’s office and on the board of trustees in Nederland as another reason the project failed.
Lessons to be learned locallySummit County officials knee-deep in the biomass project aren’t necessarily deterred by the failings of the project in Nederland. In fact, they’re confident biomass can not only work, but also that it can work well to alleviate many of the problems – such as wildfire – associated with the build-up of wood in local forests.”To some degree, (the Nederland system) is state-of-the-art in this state, but that really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the feasibility of this type of operation,” Hill said. “Probably the biggest difference between the two systems is that one, the magnitude of our system is certainly larger than the Nederland system. Two, we most likely will be using technology that’s a bit more advanced than what they have there.”Hill cites successful projects along the East Coast, including a school in New Hampshire that uses biofuels to heat their buildings. Hill also referenced a project under way by the Boulder County Parks Department, where a biomass plant heats some of their facilities.”One thing that is also important to recognize is that the use of biofuels is in its infancy,” Hill said. “Around the world, we’ve got some real experience we can count on and use.”Vail, Colorado