There is enough wood supply in and around the Roaring Fork Valley to use biomass for heating purposes and a carbon-negative, energy-positive result, a new study has concluded.
For local clean energy advocates, the conclusion raises the exciting possibility of replacing fossil fuel heating with biomass.
While the study by the Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium found the wood supply is bountiful enough to heat buildings, it concluded it is not strong enough to generate electricity.
The analysis found there is existing potential for about 6,000 tons per year of biomass fuel from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. Most of that comes from discarded construction wood and ongoing forest maintenance. It includes no commercial logging.
“We wanted a really careful look at the supply data for the Roaring Fork Valley,” said John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor and current director of non-profit For the Forest, which spearheaded the biomass group’s formation. “Basically, what’s the wood pile?”
Begun last year with a $19,200 grant from the Governor’s Energy Office, the project was a collaboration of five local organizations: For the Forest, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), the Aspen Global Change Institute, the Flux Farm Foundation and the Sopris Foundation.
Biomass is a renewable energy source that uses organic material — mostly wood — to produce electricity, heat or fuel through incineration.
The consortium is not aiming to build a biomass facility itself. But its members hope their study will be used by public or private entities to bring biomass to the valley. The consortium is hosting a day-long summit on biomass in Carbondale on Wednesday, in the hopes of educating the public — and possible developers — about the local potential.
Along with the 6,000-ton existing annual supply, the study found that there is a tri-county potential for 140,000 tons of biomass to be grown here, if local ranchers and farmers agree to grow trees on 20 percent of their irrigated land for biomass.
The total value of the study is estimated at $100,000, much of that coming from the hundreds of hours invested from consortium members to prepare it.
They conducted an assessment of the overall carbon emissions that could be created by biomass operations, to find if they could stay carbon-negative.
For example, if fleets of diesel-powered trucks were carrying wood around the valley, would their emissions nullify the environmental benefit of a biomass project?
“You don’t want to end up with something that just looks good on paper,” Bennett said, calling this “the ‘keep us honest’ part of the study.”
James Arnott of the Aspen Global Change Institute developed the carbon assessment model, which analyzes total emissions including trucking, chipping and other biomass-related activity.
“We’re looking at whether you have a net positive carbon emission at the end of the day, or a net negative,” Arnott said.
He found that with 6,000 tons of woody biomass coming from within an 80-mile radius, the result here would be remain carbon negative.
The study found that the most effective biomass facility locally would be located in a high-density area — ideally one that included large structures like a recreation center, a hospital or an affordable housing complex that could all use biomass heat.
Nathan Ratledge, of CORE, said the ideal biomass pioneer project here would be something that hasn’t broken ground yet, and can have biomass designed into it from the start.
“One key thing is to get involved in the design phase,” he said.
Members of the consortium will meet with foresters, energy experts and elected officials on Wednesday to discuss the future of biomass in the region. Scheduled participants include state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a video call-in from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The meeting is scheduled to run from 12:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. at Carbondale Town Hall. It is free and open to the public.