Energy company aims to turn Colo.'s dead trees into electricity

Posted: May 24, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E

Xcel Energy Inc. wants to use beetle-killed trees and other forest waste in Colorado to generate electricity.

The Minneapolis-based company announced yesterday in a filing to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that it plans to seek bidders willing to build and operate a 2-megawatt power plant that can take trees killed over the last decade by bark beetles and convert them into a biogas that can be used to power generators capable of producing electricity.

If it can find a suitable partner and project proposal, Xcel plans to enter into a 10-year power-purchase agreement to buy up to 2 MW of electricity -- enough to power about 1,500 homes, said Mark Stutz, an Xcel spokesman in Denver.

The biomass demonstration project would be the first of its kind in the state and could help improve forest health as well as create jobs, proponents say.

"Since 2007, Xcel Energy has been investigating small, forest biomass project opportunities," said David Eves, president and chief executive of Public Service Co. of Colorado, an Xcel company.

Stutz said the location of a new plant, as well as any timeline for construction and operation, would be decided by the winning bidder.

But Eves said the time is right to pursue a pilot project in a state where bark beetles have destroyed trees covering more than 6.6 million acres since the outbreak was discovered in 1996, according to the Forest Service.

"Because the overall health of Colorado forests has degraded due to drought and [beetle] infestation, there has been increasing interest among various stakeholders to pursue this type of demonstration project," he said in a statement. "Xcel Energy would gain valuable experience concerning the potential use of biomass for future electricity generation, and we would be able to determine whether this type of technology is a reasonable and promising way to address the health of our Colorado forests."

The goal, according to Xcel, is to submit a winning bid to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission by October, at which time the company would request the commission approve the 10-year power-purchase agreement.

Elected leaders and forest advocates praised Xcel's announcement. They say it's needed for a number of reasons, particularly concern that the millions of dead trees in Colorado and across the West could act as fuel for wildfires. That concern is heightened in Colorado after two massive fires in Colorado Springs and near Fort Collins last summer burned tens of thousands of acres and destroyed nearly 600 homes, marking 2012 as the most destructive wildfire season in the state's history.

Overall last year, more than 9 million acres of forestlands burned nationwide, making it the third-largest wildfire season based on acres burned since the 1960s.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D) said the Xcel proposal, if successful, would demonstrate to the nation "how we can turn brown trees into a new kind of green."

"This new proposal from Xcel Energy is the latest example of how Colorado is a model for a balanced and innovative energy policy -- and smart forest management," Udall said in a statement. "I look forward to seeing this idea considered further and I applaud Xcel Energy's work to create jobs and improve the health of our spectacular national forests."

Udall and fellow Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D) have expressed concerns in recent months about the health of the state's forests.

Bennet last month sponsored S. 745, which would allow the Forest Service to take quick action to remove dead or dying trees damaged by disease or by beetle infestations in an effort to improve forest health and boost the timber industry (E&E Daily, April 18).

And the Western Governors' Association last month wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to expand the use of public-private partnerships, including contracting private companies to conduct "vegetative management activities" and logging to accelerate efforts to clear dry brush and dead trees that can increase the risk of wildfires (E&ENews PM, April 16).

But the timber needs to have a place to be processed, and Stutz said it's possible the new plant could be built near a sawmill.

The Forest Service has invested money into developing strategies to tackle the issue. In January, the Department of Agriculture awarded grant funding worth $25 million to projects aimed at researching renewable fuels and bio-based products (E&ENews PM, Jan. 11).

"Expanding this opportunity carries out our priority to accelerate the pace of forest restoration, to contribute to job creation, and to create healthier and more resilient forests for the future," said Daniel Jirón, regional forester for the service's Rocky Mountain region in Denver. "Reducing the risk of wildfire protects vital infrastructure on the landscape."

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