A portion of the wood-fired biomass plant in Linz, Austria that was visited last week by local Forest Service officials.
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Below is the transcript for the radio story that is posted above and was produced in collaboration with KDNK public radio in Carbondale:

“Huge clusters of dead lodge pole pines and other trees killed by insects can now be found on over 4 million acres of land in Colorado.

Scott FitzWilliams

And regional and local forest managers are looking far afield to see whether those dead trees can be used to create green energy.

Scott Fitzwilliams, the head of the White River National Forest, recently found himself in Linz, Austria at a biomass plant.

“This is a lot of wood and a lot of power.”

At the big plant in Linz, stacks of dead trees were being ground into wood chips, which were then burned to boil water.

“In our case it’s very simple, we convert all the energy in the wood into steam. Then we will run it through the steam turbine, take away, take out, as much as possible electricity, and the rest goes into district heat.”

Hubert Pauli 2

That’s Hurbert Pauli, the manager of the Linz biomass plant, who was showing Fitzwilliams and about twenty other interested citizens – many of them from Colorado – the inner workings of the biomass plant.

The educational tour of renewable energy plants in Austria and Germany was sponsored by the Ecologic Institute, which also covered the cost for this reporter to come along.

While at the big biomass plant in Linz, Fitzwilliams was optimistic that trees removed from Colorado’s forests – to meet of the goal of habitat restoration – could be used to create renewable energy.

Conveyor belt

“With our whole focus being forest restoration – improving habitat, creating age-class diversity – and then the product that comes out of it is clean power. I think that’s … we have to find that little niche. And it’s not at the scale we’re looking at here. But somewhere, as we’ve seen throughout this trip, we’ve seen small scale on farms and stuff that … you know, these combined heat and power units for schools, or for an ag community, or a housing complex, I think would work.”

That’s not to say that biomass plants don’t come with challenges, as Pauli, the Austrian plant manager, described for the tour group.

Linz plant furnace

“We have seen it is not so easy, like buying gas, and saying, okay, we need 20,000 cubic meters or something like this. You have a little plant, a little chimney and a little place for 200 megawatts or more. If you build up something like biomass, you will see we need 20,000 square meters of area only for the handling and the storage, we need 15 people, we need a purchaser, we need also something for the ashes .. and there are a lot of problems.”

Smaller biomass plants also have challenges, including the cost of harvesting and transporting the wood to the plant.

Fitzwilliams is also aware that for some residents of Colorado, the idea of harvesting wood brings back concerns of overzealous logging practices.

wood stacks

“There’s no question that I think people have, relatively fresh in their memories for some people, what we went through with old growth clear-cutting 30 years ago, and the worry that, ‘well, we don’t have Weyerhaeuser and Louisiana Pacific cutting large trees, we’ll just have a biomass plant doing the same thing for a different reason.’ I think its unfounded, but we have to find that sweet spot, where, can we sustain this for over a long time and not go back to those days, but use the product that is there? Clearly, they have found a way to put wood to work in both these countries we’ve been in.”

Another Colorado resident also came away from the biomass tour convinced that small-scale plants could have a role to play in the state’s energy future.

Heather Erb is a real estate broker from Durango who served as the co-chair of La Plata County’s climate and energy committee.

entering plant

“It seems the more I learn about it that these big projects would never work without a lot of government subsidies. Not just a little, but like a ton of it. It just doesn’t make economic sense for a community to take this on – any community in Colorado. But because of all the beetle kill we have, it makes sense that you’d have some more regional places that maybe are mobile and can move from place to place as you have some dying and dead trees. So, yeah, the community stuff seems really, really cool.”

Local communities will soon get a better look at the prospects for biomass plants here, as a group called the Roaring Fork Biomass Consortium is releasing the results of a feasibility study at a meeting in Carbondale on September 28th.

For Aspen Journalism, I’m Brent Gardner-Smith.”

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...