Caretaking Colorado’s Crown Jewel

Sustainability is symbiotic when it comes to biomass power plant Eagle Valley Clean Energy and the fuel it uses.
By Anna Simet | September 18, 2014

When visiting the picturesque site of Eagle Valley Clean Energy, one might confuse the rolling, cattle-littered landscape with a farming operation.

Right on the edge of the ski town Gypsum, Colorado, the plant serves to preserve the beauty of the what the USDA Forest Service refers to as the “crown jewel” of our nation’s public land system, the White River National Forest. Triggered by numerous circumstances including aging forests, warmer winters and extended drought, the western pine beetle has devoured millions of acres of Colorado’s forests, prompting a desperate need for removal of dead, dying and falling trees. Via a 10-year contract with the forest service, Eagle Valley Clean Energy is doing just that, while spurring numerous other positive impacts.

Partners Dean Rostrom and Kendrick Wait, with backgrounds in Wall Street and engineering, respectively, were working independently on renewable energy projects before partnering up to submit a response to a request for proposal (RFP) from Holy Cross Energy, the local utility in western Colorado that serves the mountain and ski resort regions. “Consumers had voted and responded to a questionnaire with a resounding yes to renewable energy,” explains Rostrom. “As a result, Holy Cross put out an RFP for which we understand about 50 different proposals came in. They narrowed the list and finally decided on our proposal.”

Rostrom believes the advantage that set his and Wait’s proposal apart from the other types of renewables are the benefits that wind and solar don’t offer—the standard non-intermittency that biomass provides, but also forest health. “That was huge, because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic that’s swept through and devastated millions of acres in Colorado,” Rostrom says. “That’s really the story here—that this is such a unique, long-term reliable tool for forest health management.”

After the signing of a 20-year power purchase agreement toward the 2011, the project began to gain momentum, but the course to completion wasn’t exactly smooth sailing—navigating the red tape of accessing fuel on federal lands posed a challenge. “That gave us some gray hairs,” Wait admits. “Cutting on federal lands is very difficult.”

The strategy to ease that burden was to bring in a partner who knew the ropes—a retired deputy forester, who served as a consultant and was able to score the project its forest stewardship contract with the USDA Forest Service. “It provides for a certain number of acres every year that we’re responsible for treating,” Rostrom explains. “They tell our logger—West Range Reclamation—where to go and how to treat the beetle-kill acres. They get it, chip and bring it to our facility.”

Just recently, the plant was qualified as a conversion facility under the USDA BCAP program. “It’s a very important project for the forest service, because it enables them to do some logging and forestlands treatment in area that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the $60 million project was financing, Rostrom says. “The market is still closed to anything other than right down the middle of the fairway type financing—it was very difficult to finance.”

The forest service contract was critical in that case, as well as long-term financing—a loan guarantee provided by the USDA—which took a year and a half to square away, on top of a year to secure the forest stewardship agreement. After going to commercial banks for the remaining funds, another year passed. “It was several years’ worth of hard work,” Rostrom adds.

The 11.5-MW plant, which became fully operational last Christmas Day, consumes about 250 dry tons of biomass per day, according to Wait, who adds that beetle kill wood is typically very dry, requiring a boiler design specific for very low-moisture fuel. The partners describe the plant set up as typical—a standard fuel yard where chipped fuel is brought in, a steam boiler at the heart of the facility and an electrostatic precipitator to control emissions. Water treatment is done out of the Eagle River Basin. “The interconnection point is right at the site,” Wait adds, “so we don’t have to send our power miles over a new power line.”

Not your typical biomass power project, Rostrom points out that the operation is a classic, small-family business that’s brought jobs and long-time investment to the community. “We haven’t just put up panels and gone away,” he says. “The two of our families own this business, and together, we’ve pushed it through.”

Other partners in the project include Wellons and Bill Carlson, former Biomass Power Association chairman.

 “One of the things we’ve been excited and pleased about is we get a lot of calls from local landowners looking for an outlet to dispose of all of their clean woody biomass for free—people clearing out beetle-killed wood or treating private lands, agreements with landfills to ease clogging there, tree-trimming companies, or, for example, the town of Gypsum expanding a reservoir and had material they needed to dispose of,” Rostrom adds. “We can take stuff and help clean up the landscape. It’s been really great—good for our industry, good for us because it’s cheap fuel, and it’s good for the community.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine