Panel discussion features Boulder County, Colo., heating plant

By Lisa Gibson | April 17, 2012

The district heating plant in Boulder County, Colo., supplies five buildings and a total of 95,000 square feet. The plant was a trailblazer in Colorado’s forest-residue-to-bioenergy industry and is a perfect example of integrating forest management with biomass applications.

Therese Glowacki, natural resource manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provided an overview of the heating plant during the panel “Mastering the Art and Science of Biomass Harvest, Handling and Delivery” at the International Biomass Conference & Expo, held April 16-19 in Denver, Colo. She began her presentation, titled “Beetle Kill to Biomass Heat,” by discussing the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic and rampant wildfires. The forests in Colorado are all around the same age, she explained, which causes hotter and more intense burns. Colorado’s problems with forest fires, both historical and current, have been watched by the entire country, as homes and even lives are lost. “Letting forests burn is not an option,” Glowacki said. And the pine beetle, she added, is a native insect, but overcrowded and poorly managed forests have created a haven for the destructive creatures.

“Forest management leads to biomass energy,” she told her audience, adding that Boulder County is striving to be the pinnacle in natural forest management and bioenergy.

The county manages 30,000 acres, thinning about 100 to 200 acres per year. Before the biomass district heating system was installed, about 1,600 slash piles were burned every year. The county’s biomass boiler was installed following a very positive feasibility study, and began operating in 2005. It needs only 650 tons per year of wood chips, meaning the county only uses thinnings from 65 of its acres to operate it. “It has been so successful, that in 2011, we installed a second biomass system,” Glowacki said, adding that the second system heats a jail.

The chips are delivered by truck and once they are poured into the feedstock bin, the handling is completely automated. Smoke and ash was a potential concern, she added, as the county’s heating plant is positioned adjacent to an airport. But the system only produces steam and the volume of ash generated is so low that it is handled with a wheelbarrow. The plant has saved an estimated $20,000 per year.

During project development, Boulder County learned a few lessons: it’s important to get everyone on board; consistent chip quality is crucial; such a project takes time and plenty of fine-tuning; and it set an example for the rest of the state. “We set the stage for others in Colorado,” Glowacki said, citing a few other counties and organizations that have installed biomass boilers. “We really feel we are leaders.”