Confluence Energy President Mark Mathis, at his plant in Kremmling, is helping Oak Creek explore the possibilities of building a power plant that would be fueled by wood pellets.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Confluence Energy President Mark Mathis, at his plant in Kremmling, is helping Oak Creek explore the possibilities of building a power plant that would be fueled by wood pellets.

Oak Creek explores energy options

South Routt town could become first biomass-fueled municipality in nation


— Oak Creek long has relied on local power sources to heat its homes. After a long history with coal, the town is turning its eyes toward biomass - Northwest Colorado's newest plentiful natural resource, thanks to the pine-beetle epidemic sweeping through forests across the American West.

With the cost of propane choking local pocketbooks, the Oak Creek Town Board quietly began exploring other energy options in recent months and is poised to become the first biomass-heated municipality in the country.

With energy costs escalating and showing no sign of slowing down, "we're losing our shirts on propane," Mayor Pro-Tem Angie Krall said.

In talks last week with pellet producer Confluence Energy, based out of Kremmling, and the town's current electric provider, it became clear exactly how feasible such a switch would be.

For a district biomass heating system such as what Oak Creek is considering, the cost savings over propane mean the project would pay for itself in less than four years. If the town quickly moves to get plans drawn up and the proper financing channels in place, the system could be up and running in time for the first cold snap of the winter of 2009-10.

"It's how the small town

solves the energy crisis," Confluence Energy President Mark Mathis said.

The hard sell

The hardest and most expensive part of converting Oak Creek to biomass electricity would be constructing the lines that bring heat to the homes, Krall said.

A biomass boiler house, only a 500-square-foot facility, is estimated to cost $1.2 million to $1.5 million. Lines to send the power, brought through a closed-loop piping system where the heat is pulled out of hot water by individual homes and businesses, would cost in the neighborhood of $5 million, though more detailed plans would need to be drawn up for a closer estimation of the figure.

Figuring in a total cost of $6 million for installation, a biomass district heating system would recover that cost completely in less than four years versus propane, Mathis said.

"That's so fundable it's

scary," he said.

Although such systems are used widely in Europe and for American campuses such as universities and large commercial sites, Oak Creek would be the first town in the U.S. to undertake such a project, Mathis said. Because the town owns its own utility that is free from the restrictions of TABOR, Oak Creek also could get there much more quickly than most other municipalities, Mathis said.

"It saves you a whole bunch of money, a whole bunch of legal issues and a whole bunch of time and energy," Mathis said.

Oak Creek, which is one of roughly a dozen Colorado towns to own its own power grid, is a member

of the Municipal Energy Association of Nebraska. For energy needs above Oak Creek's hydroelectric power allocation from the Western Area Power Administration - which is currently 18 percent - Oak Creek is bound to purchase from MEAN through 2041.

The green in green power

The power Oak Creek currently buys from MEAN mostly comes from coal, with small percentages from natural gas, diesel and nuclear power. And the town's electric supplier is interested in partnering on the project, not just because it's the right thing to do for the environment but because cost savings can be shared across the board, as well, said Billy Cutsor, a resource planning engineer with MEAN.

"If it's going to be good and economical for Oak Creek, it's going to be good and economical for MEAN members," Cutsor said.

Biomass pellets and chips are considered very environmentally safe - as clean or cleaner than natural gas - and they're considered carbon neutral since burning them generates no more carbon dioxide than if the trees they came from decomposed naturally, Mathis said.

"Whether we use beetle kill as a fuel source or not, it's going to release that carbon into the air," Mathis said.

The Town Board is not just looking altruistically at green power - the financials of the project also tip such a large-scale project in Oak Creek's favor. In addition to out-of-pocket savings on utility bills for residents and businesses, the town can profit from the project by generating beyond its need.

"We're taking care of the people, but we're helping out the general fund, too," Krall said.

Mathis estimated Oak Creek spends at least $2 million a year on propane to heat its homes and businesses. Biomass pellets would decrease that cost to about $500,000.

"That doesn't even cover carbon credits, tax incentives," Mathis said. "It's just dollars to dollars, straight savings."

MEAN would be able to buy back power produced with biomass in Oak Creek and distribute that energy to its other members, and it has agreed to have a representative sit in on an upcoming feasibility study.

"It's not an impossible task to do this," Cutsor said. "We're here to help."

- To reach Melinda Dudley, call 871-4203

or e-mail


Scott Wedel 8 years, 9 months ago

Conceptually, such a system is wonderfully efficient. Just as it would help with plant efficiency and provide cheap heat if Hayden was heated from the coal power plant instead of using the cooling condense the steam back to water. These systems work with campuses and such because a central authority can be sure all buildings are built to use such systems and that the size of the system matches the heating requirements.

In practice, running the hot water lines around Oak Creek is only the first step. Buildings would have to be retrofitted to utilize them. Heating systems would have to be replaced with hot water baseboard or hot water blower units. Electric or propane hot water heaters would have to be replaced heat transfer units which cost about $800 for a 40 gallon unit. In practice, it could easily be a $5,000 retrofit cost for a typical house.

Before a homeowner would invest in such a retrofit, there would have to be a high level of confidence that the Town would successfully maintain the system. Oak Creek's current infrastructure is a disaster. Water and sewer lines are an admitted mess. Electrical grid is a hodge podge of transformers and wires with many wires crossing somebody else's property without any sort of easement. The sewer project with Carter Burgess has had virtually no progress despite all the money paid by the Town. The water system does not even have water meters. The Town has only a handful of paved streets, some of which are so decayed that they are being patched with dirt. Paved streets in Oak Creek are literally being returned to dirt and the Town Board would have us believe they can operate a biomass plant and heating lines?

When the Town shows it has the competence to have properly maintained water, sewer and electrical systems with paved streets then it might be reasonable to suggest they could competently run a biomass plant with heating lines throughout the Town.

Until then, any Town money spent on this is simply government waste in search of a fantasy.


OneFly 8 years, 9 months ago

Once again Wedal is blowing smoke or is it his coal fired unapproved outside furnace that spews toxic fumes 24/7 that he has his head in on a daily basis that is confusing him on the facts.

The fantasy from this malcontent is that his run down properties are being operated with any kind of competence where the reality is the opposite.

As always he speaks falsehoods as the only meetings he attends are to complain about others and how he is being mistreated. It's hard to attend these to learn exactly what position the town and infrastructure are in if you don't live here.

Regardless of coal dust smoke filled illusions of this man the possibilities of this venture are the future of not only Oak Creek but other places as well.


ybul 8 years, 9 months ago

It is too bad that hydronic geothermal is not also looked into as a source of heat in addition to biomass. Use the biomass to generate electricity, the waste heat to heat something and then use the electricity in conjunction with a heat pump to extract heat from the earth to heat with. It would be significantly more energy wise than to simply burn the wood for heat. As wood is a limited energy source, and the heat captured by the earth will last as long as the sun keeps the planet habitable.

It is good to see people looking outside the box. Though maybe the box should be expanded, as the beetle kill wood will only be available for a while, in addition, that wood could be used for building materials. Geothermal vs, Propane would also have a very short payback time line, outside the box thinking is always great, but sometimes, we get sold a product by a salesperson, who has a product to market, which may not be the best long term solution. The wood pellet mfg, is simply looking for a market for his product, not necessarily considering all the options that would be the best long term solution for the town of oak creek.


TrunkMonkey 8 years, 9 months ago

Maybe Scott Naysayer could use some of the hot water generated to reopen the town's only carwash he ran into the ground shortly after it's purchase.


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