Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Resort areas up ante on energy


VAIL, Colo. (MTN) -- Ski towns and their down-valley siblings have been conspiring to be part of a great energy transformation.

ColoradoBiz magazine reports that town staffers in Vail have been trying to put together the pieces for a woody biomass plant that would generate heat for portions of Vail Village during winter and create electricity during summer.

The proposal has yet to go before the town council, and it seems to rely upon the perhaps thin hope of federal aid. But the larger story is that woody biomass—an ancient form of heating, but improved with new technology—has been getting lots of attention, owing in part to the many beetle-killed pine trees now much in evidence in Colorado and elsewhere.

Experts tell the magazine that woody biomass has a rapid payback in places that burn propane, as is the case in Fairplay and Oak Creek, two mountain towns in Colorado where wood-burning projects have been completed or are underway. But it's important, they say, to scale the projects to the appropriate size. In other words, wood must be available after the beetle-killed trees have fallen to the forest floor and rotted. Wilderness designations and other protections plus the simple matter of steep slopes and inaccessibility make many forested tracts unavailable for tree harvesting.

Still, enough wood exists to heat many buildings. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in the suburbs west of Denver, has a 400,000-square-foot campus heated primarily by wood, most of it killed by beetles, reports the magazine.

One of the places where burning wood has already been cutting down the natural gas bill is in Gilpin County, where the gambling towns of Central City and Blackhawk are located. There, a public works garage has been heated since 2007 with great success.

Seeing that success, the Gunnison County commissioners have been considering woody biomass heating for their new public works garage. As well, reports the Crested Butte News, wood remains a potential source of heat for a major new building on the campus of Western State College.

From the Durango Telegraph comes a story about two entrepreneurs, Andrew Klotz and Ian Barrowclough, who hope to leverage a partnership with a local government into a de facto solar collector farm. The government relationship, formalized in a public improvement district, would allow tax credits, grants and federal stimulus funds for their project.

The entrepreneurs hope to get 330 homes to allow installation of photo-voltaic collectors. Homeowners would pay the entrepreneurs $70 to $100 per month for the system, and their electric bills should go down a similar amount.

Wally White, a La Plata County commissioner, told the newspaper that he wants to know more.

"Government has a responsibility to lead on these kinds of conservation issues," he said.

In Telluride, the town government is considering adoption of a mandatory offset program similar to that pioneered in Aspen in 2000, with later incarnations in Snowmass Village, Eagle County and other mountain towns and valleys.

The concept assumes that homes and businesses have minimum energy needs, but large homes with outdoor spas, swimming pools or snowmelt systems have obligations to offset their so-called extravagant use with renewable energy systems or in-lieu fees. In Aspen, those fees have amounted to $8 million, which has been doled out to energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects.

"It's not that we all want to be ascetics and not have any fun and live in the dark, but we do need to be very aware of the choices we make in our personal lives," said Kris Holstrum, executive director of the New Community Coalition, a nonprofit that formulated the proposed regulations in Telluride.

Mayors of Telluride and Mountain Village have also announced their goal—if they can get town council and community backing—of creating renewable energy sources sufficient to offset 100 percent of the electrical consumption in the Telluride area by 2020.

In Gypsum, 37 miles west of Vail, town officials have applied for nearly $1 million in federal stimulus money to replace an aging water line. The new line, if approved, would include a hydroelectric component, capable of generating 65 kilowatts of electricity, or roughly enough to offset the demands from the town's recreation center, and possibly enough to meet the needs of the wastewater treatment plant.

Up the valley at Edwards, a 5,890-square-foot home has been certified to LEED gold, the second highest in the hierarchy of environmentally benign homes under the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system. A HERS (Home Energy Rating System) analysis found the home will use 62 percent less energy than other homes of the same size built to the applicable building code at the start of construction, the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code.

In Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek, a deal has been struck between Avon town officials and directors of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Heat generated in treatment of wastewater will be extracted to melt snow in the town's forthcoming Main Street area and also to heat the town's recreation center. Enabling the project was a $1.5 million grant from Colorado state government under a program encouraging energy efficiency.

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