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Mountain News: Ski towns and valleys step up energy changes



VAIL, Colo. - Ski towns and their down-valley siblings have been conspiring to be part of this great energy transformation underway.

Colorado Biz 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, such 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 building campus now being 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 the electric bills should go down a similar amount.