Utility begins using woody biomass for generation

COLORADO, SPRINGS, COLORADO - When you think of utility-scale renewable energy, images of wind turbines or solar panels are probably the first to enter your mind. Terry Meikle has other ideas.

He envisions piles of sawdust and woodchips as Colorado Springs' next clean energy source.

Living at the foot of Pikes Peak and near hundreds of square miles of aging pine forest, Meikle sees an abundant fuel source. And he has reason to be optimistic about the potential of wood. Since 2006, he's lead the effort to research and test woody biomass successfully as a power source for Colorado Springs.

"Biomass for electric generation is an awesome project.

It's the right thing to be doing for the community, for the environment," says Meikle. "There is a 20 year supply of woody biomass from dead or dying trees within a 75 mile radius of the Martin Drake Power Plant."

"The older trees in Colorado's forests are susceptible to pine beetle kill," continued Meikle. "By removing the dead trees in a systematic way, we'll help reduce the risk of fire and make the forest healthier."

Before wood chips can be burned in the Drake plant, which is located near downtown Colorado Springs, they must be ground to less than a quarter-inch size. Meikle and his team have completed a preliminary design for a biomass receiving, storage, processing and injection system for unit 7 at the plant. Bid specifications are being developed to construct a receiving hopper, conveyor system, storage silo, grinding system and injection system by 2011.

Springs Utilities will contract with a biomass management company to deliver wood fuels to the plant. The primary woody biomass source will be from forest products, urban wood waste, pallets and sawdust. Pellets from wood, waste agriculture products and paper are also being investigated and considered in the co-firing system design.

The available wood supply will be enough to continuously blend 15 percent biomass with 85 percent coal. Meikle expects that biomass will replace 75,000 tons of coal a year starting in 2011. Three percent of Springs Utilities' total electric output is projected to be from woody biomass. Colorado Springs Utilities provides electricity to more than 200,000 customers.

The Drake Power Plant is capable of burning coal and natural gas. With the addition of biomass, Drake will be one of the few power plants in the nation that can burn three different types of fuel. "A more diverse fuel mix will increase our reliability and lower our costs if we have supply or delivery issues with coal or natural gas," says Meikle.

Transportation is the largest expense for any woody biomass project. Most of the forest product is expected to be delivered via truck. Rail delivery is also being investigated.

The biomass receiving, storage, processing and injection system at the Drake plant will cost an estimated $10 million. Meikle is hoping that a good portion of the project will be financed through renewable energy grants. Springs Utilities has already been awarded a $250,000 Woody Biomass Utilization grant from Federal Stimulus funds. An application for a $5 million grant from the Department of Energy has been submitted.

With an approved woody biomass permit from the State of Colorado in hand, Springs Utilities will begin burning a sawdust/coal blend this month. Because it's already in very small pieces, sawdust can be burned at the Drake plant without being pulverized. Meikle plans to burn sawdust until the long-term forest product facility is completed in 2011.

The sawdust comes from area manufacturers, such as furniture makers, who historically have paid to haul and dump the byproduct to the landfill. Local materials manager, Rocky Top Resources, was recently contracted to collect, screen and deliver the material to the power plant. Springs Utilities will receive and burn most of the local sawdust supply, estimated at 25 tons a week. The volume is enough to support a blend of 1 percent sawdust to 99 percent coal.

"We're putting to beneficial use a product that has been wasted and put in landfills," said Meikle, "Sawdust is a local product, as opposed to fuels shipped in from hundreds of miles away."

Meikle and others at Springs Utilities have been working with several local agencies to make woody biomass a reality, including: the Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, private contractors, the Governor's Energy Office, congressional leaders, the City of Colorado Springs, Woodland Park and other local governments.

Springs Utilities is a founding member of the Woodland Park Healthy Forest Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to reduce forest conditions that can lead to catastrophic fires, weather events, insects, and disease conditions. Efficient use of biomass will support a more diverse and healthy forest.

"As a community-owned utility, we're committed to protecting the beauty of the Pikes Peak region," says Jerry Forte, Colorado Springs Utilities chief executive officer. "Woody biomass is a natural for us here in Colorado. It's a low-cost, renewable energy source and will keep our forests healthy at the same time."

Environmental benefits of woody biomass:

• Less emissions (sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulates) than coal.

• Woody biomass is carbon neutral. If not burned, wood releases carbon dioxide as it decomposes.

• Less ash is produced compared to coal, reducing landfill.

• Promotes healthy forests and reduces the risk of devastating fires.

• As a local product, the fuel does not have to be transported as far as coal sources.

• Provides a beneficial use for material that has been considered a detriment and taken to the landfill.

Economic benefits of local woody biomass:

• Uses existing power plants and electric transmission lines.

• One of the least-expensive forms of renewable energy. The delivered cost is much less than the cost of delivered wind and solar.

• Benefits the local economy by generating jobs in the collection and transporting of forest and other wood products.

• Provides a more diverse fuel mix, which can mitigate fluctuations in coal and natural gas costs.

Colorado Springs Utilities is one of the nation's largest four-service municipally-owned utilities, providing electric, natural gas, water and wastewater services more than 500,000 people in the Pikes Peak region.


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