Wood-fired boilers gaining steam

Electricity presents bigger hurdles than heat



Scrap materials created by many area sawmills can be used to produce wood pellets to fire wood-burning boilers.

Oak Creek and Milner are on the cutting edge of a new energy frontier.

The two small Routt County communities have characteristics, including their size, that make them better suited to take advantage of the state's mountain pine beetle epidemic in ways that may not make sense for larger communities.

Earlier this summer, Community Energy Systems President Brett Ken Cairn announced that he is in talks with the Milner Landfill and the adjacent More Lumber sawmill about the feasibility of building an "eco-industrial park" on the site.

The envisioned Milner Energy Park would take waste from one operation and use it as a resource for another. Wood waste from the mill would be combined with municipal waste from the landfill to fuel a biomass power plant at the hub of the park. The primary waste product of the power plant - heat - would be used to heat a dry kiln building proprietors Billy Oerding and Mike Miller hope to construct at the More Lumber sawmill, which works exclusively with beetle-kill wood harvested on private land.

"It's moving toward total utilization of materials," said Ken Cairn, who also is performing a feasibility study of a biomass electricity facility in Walden for Mountain Parks Electric.

Ken Cairn put the cost of a quarter-megawatt facility at $1 million and said it could be built in two years. Xcel Energy's coal-powered Hayden Station produces 446 megawatts of electricity.

Ken Cairn expects rural electric co-ops such as Yampa Valley Electric Association to be supportive of such facilities because of state-mandated benchmarks for the percentage of their electricity that must come from renewable sources.

Ken Cairn said total-utilization facilities are the only way to turn wood into electricity with any amount of economic viability.

"It's the least valuable thing you could do with wood," Ken Cairn said of electricity generation. "We need to find ways to reduce the cost of the feed stock and improve the efficiency of the utilization. I would assert that you can't go out and harvest trees for energy alone. : I don't think it's sustainable."

Ken Cairn said the most appropriate use for wood is heat. In Oak Creek, residents are taking a serious look at becoming the first biomass-fueled municipality in the nation. Mark Mathis, of Kremmling wood-pellet mill Confluence Energy, said the economics work because of Oak Creek's size, its lack of paved streets that would need to be torn out to install water lines, a plethora of cheap fuel provided by the mountain pine beetle epidemic to heat those lines, and the fact that the town relies on expensive propane for heat.

"It's eating their lunch," Mathis said of propane. "Why not use a perfectly good resource at your feet?"

Wood-fired heating systems have proved successful on smaller scales. The South Routt School District and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden will soon put such systems to the test, and officials with Boulder County Parks and Open Space swear by their system.

Boulder County uses wood waste from its thinning operations to heat a five-building complex. In a worst-case scenario, the system should pay for itself in 20 years; with current natural gas prices, it will do so in seven, Boulder County officials said.

At NREL, mechanical engineer Chris Gaul said a "renewable fuel heat plant" will warm a 400,000-square-foot laboratory and cut natural gas use by 80 percent. Gaul said wood fuel is $2.50 per million BTUs, while natural gas currently costs $11 per million BTUs. The project estimates for the heat plant assumed natural gas would cost just $8 per million BTUs.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 9 months ago

If wood fuel is $2.50 per million BTUs while propane is currently about $35 per million BTUs then why wait for a biomass plant and heat pipes?

Why not simply deliver 50 gallon barrels full of wood pellets for $5 per million BTUs and let residents get pellet stoves?

OC infrastructure is so run down that the Town still does not even have water meters on their water system and is repairing asphalt streets with dirt. They have no credibility on being able to install and maintain a modern heat pipes system.

I have an apartment building that using a furnace to heat hot water that then heats the potable hot water and also the apartments via hot water baseboard. These systems are not cheap or simple. The materials needed to retrofit a house would cost between $1,500 and $2,500. The labor cost to install and retrofit should be expected to be no less than $5,000.

That is a major investment with many years to payback. The average homeowner can get far faster payback on investment by better insulating and fixing drafts.

There is also the obvious risk that someone else would build a biomass plant in Kremmling sized to match production capacity and then wood pellets are no longer so cheap 45 miles away in Oak Creek.

So I will ask again - if wood pellets are so great then why not deliver them to OC for use in pellet stoves???


max huppert 8 years, 9 months ago

Scott, I tried to tell ya to get a multi fuel furnace, all I needed was a good chain saw. I say you cant count on gov to help you, have to find what works best and cheapest for you and do it yourself, But I dont think I will ever have to worry about running out of wood and its less messy then coal, you are always looking coaly.

I will let you know how Solar works out.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 9 months ago

Actually, if I can burn wood pellets for close to what coal costs then I'll switch to wood. My coal stoker manufacturer claims that it can also burn wood pellets. (Just change pulley ratio to feed it in much faster than coal and adjust the air flow to get a good burn).

First, I'd need to get wood pellets to the furnace without paying outrageous shipping fees. With Kremmling being 45 miles and a major mountain pass away, it is not obvious to me how to affordably get pellets. Enough wood pellets to last the winter would be such a big pile that the Town would probably find a way to say I am violating some ordinance. The other part is that wood pellets for the same amount as heat take up a lot more room than coal. A full hopper of wood pellets might not last a winter night.

If it can be made to work then I'd rather be burning wood pellets than coal. I do not like coal, but the cost difference between coal and propane is too great. I'd pay that difference if it was $10 or $20 a day, but it is more than that to heat hot water for 11 apartments and a laundromat during the summer.

And I would worry about running out of wood because if wood pellets are so great and cheap then it would make sense to build a biomass plant next to the wood pellet processing plant. Also, if the wood itself is so cheap that it can be profitably burned then someone should be able to figure out how to make it into OSB and floor joists to ship to the developing world.

So I would not spend thousands to convert a house on the expectation that wood pellets would be cheap for 10 years.


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