Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beetle Kill and Biomass Projects

About 3 million acres of Colorado and Southern Wyoming forests have been killed by the Rocky Mountain pine beetle, which has infested the Colorado’s Lodgepole Pine population for the past 15 years. The beetle kill epidemic is visible all over the state and has turned much of Colorado’s wilderness from lush green to a dark reddish color, which is severely noticeable in most regions. 

The outbreak has become an increasingly pressing problem, as the beetle populations have sustained themselves and moved upwards in elevation due to the past few relatively warm winters, and also have developed more expansive eating habits. The Forest Service has worked to clear some of the dead forests in efforts to prevent further spread of beetle populations. The vast areas of dead trees also present growing concerns regarding forest fire danger, watershed damage, trail and road damage, and power line damage.

Growing operations to remove the dead trees throughout Colorado’s forests means an increase in timber supply, which needs a use. Using the dead trees for lumber and commodity type products is difficult, as the trees killed by beetles loose their saw log value in less than two years. The beetles also leave the trees with a blue stain caused by a fungus and this reduces the market value of the wood. 

Biomass projects have become an increasingly viable and logical option for making use of the beetle kill trees, as clearing dead forests becomes a priority for the Forest Service. Although there are concerns about the environmental impact from extracting the trees from the forest, it is imperative that measures be taken to appropriately manage Colorado’s forests in order to prevent forest fires resulting in damaged watersheds.

Colorado has passed a list of bills in the past couple years that have created incentives for biomass projects in the state.

SB 12-003: Concerning measures to create Colorado jobs by encouraging active forest management for healthy forest ecosystems and the use of Colorado forest biomass as a source of renewable energy. This bill mandates that Colorado state foresters respond to the beetle kill epidemic by devising new forest management plans and also requests that a greater value be put on the wood, as it can be used by Colorado’s emerging biomass energy industry.

HB 1032: Concerning continuation of the forestry-related programs, and, in connection, therewith, making an appropriation. The bill continues the forest restoration program, and its associated funding from severance taxes, for 5 years and specifies that the program is no longer a pilot program. The bill also extends for 5 years the annual transfers from the operational account of the severance tax trust fund of $1.45 million to the healthy forests and vibrant communities fund and $50,000 to the wildland-urban interface training fund. HB 1032 provides further incentives for projects to manage the state’s forests and use beetle kill wood for biomass.

HB 1045: Concerning sales and use tax exemptions for the sale and use of wood from trees harvested in Colorado damaged by beetles. Wood wholesalers must certify on a Department of Revenue form that a product is lawfully harvested in Colorado from a salvaged tree killed or infested by spruce beetles. The sales tax exemption for these timber products is in effect from July 1, 2012, to July 1, 2020. The bill also extends until July 1, 2020, the sales and use tax exemption for the sale, storage and use of wood from salvaged trees killed or infested in Colorado by mountain pine beetle.

SB 11-267: Concerning measures to promote forest health, and, in connection therewith, creating the Colorado forest biomass use work group and promoting the creation of sustainable market-based models for active forest management and woody biomass energy development.

SB 12-180 (currently in the House): Concerning measures to encourage the use of the Colorado forest biomass as a source of renewable energy. This bill amends the state’s RPS to encourage public utilities commission to give priority to biomass derived from insect-killed or insect-diseased timber. 

There are a variety of biomass sites currently in Colorado, which range from small-scale wood pellet heating applications to larger commercial wood chip boilers. Due to the localized wood resource from the state’s beetle kill and its limited long-term supply, small-scale community biomass heating projects look to be the most promising. 

Mountain towns affected by the beetle kill epidemic, such as Vail have looked into wood gasification biomass projects for many years. Vail has been modeling its proposed biomass project after a sister ski resort in Austria, and has identified valuable cost savings and carbon offsets if the project gains initial funding. Incentives have also been identified with Colorado’s Carbon Fund program, as the fund can help underwrite biomass projects by buying tax-deductible energy offsets.

The Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium put together a study in 2011 on the future use of biomass in Colorado and identified a “sweet spot” for biomass production in the Roaring Fork Valley. The consortium identified heat only (gasification or combustion) using a 3 million BTU/hour wood chip boiler to heat about 100,000 square feet of building space to be the most feasible application for biomass in the region. This type of model is similar to the biomass facility that the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department has in place in Longmont, CO. This project is a biomass heating system that supports 125,000 square feet (5 buildings), and has been very successful. A similar biomass project was completed at Middlebury College in 2011, and projects like these can serve as examples for future small-scale projects in Colorado.

The beetle kill epidemic in Colorado has damaged the state’s forests and presents future environmental concerns. State legislation has been passed, which incentivizes biomass projects that make use of the beetle kill wood, and as the Forest Service continues to manage the Colorado’s forests and prevent further mountain beetle infestation it is important that further community based biomass projects be developed and funded.

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