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Energy developer proposes powering El Paso County jail with forest wastes

May 14, 2017 Updated: May 14, 2017 at 9:03 pm
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Armor Correctional Health Services Inc., a defendant in dozens of pending lawsuits nationwide over prisoners' civil rights and allegations of substandard care, will provide medical services to the jail's average daily population of roughly 1,500 inmates beginning July 15. (Courtesy El Paso County Jail)

A renewable energy developer wants to build a small biomass plant to power the El Paso County jail as part of its grand plan to turn wood and brush cleared during wildfire mitigation into marketable products.

The Hong Kong-based VannZa group has proposed locating the plant on county property near the jail, supplying electricity to the facility at market rates, said John Zapel, the company's president and CEO. It would be powered by about 45 to 50 tons per day of tree limbs and other small woody wastes, generating the roughly 2 to 2½ megawatts of energy needed to keep the lights on at the jail, he said.

Under the system Zapel has devised, residents and businesses could hire company crews for mitigation work. Branches and other small fuels would be chipped and hauled to the plant, where they would be heated without oxygen, generating a synthetic gas in a process called "gasification," Zapel said. The gas would then be fed into an internal combustion engine, ultimately producing electricity.

Logs and larger fuels would be taken to a lumber processing facility he plans to build in Golden, where the materials would be made into high-quality wood products.

"The purpose of the energy plan is to use that material that cannot otherwise be used," Zapel said.

Zapel and county Public Works Executive Director Jim Reid told the Board of County Commissioners about the project at a work session last month. County staff plan to submit a letter expressing interest in learning more about the project, said county spokesman Matt Steiner.

The company would lease the land from the county to build the plant, and private investors would pay for its construction.

But Zapel has a lot to accomplish before his plan materializes, including working with engineers to design the facility, reaching agreements with the county and Colorado Springs Utilities and obtaining an air quality permit from the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

If his vision becomes a reality, once he's recovered the costs of building the facilities and buying forest mitigation equipment, Zapel hopes to eventually lower the prices his company charges to remove extra forest fire fuels from the land and provide energy to utility customers.

He emphasized that the system is only financially viable with all its cogs in motion. Profits from the wood products sold at the lumber processing facility would be used to offset the cost of biomass energy generation, which is not typically profitable on its own, and expensive equipment needed to mitigate forested land.

Tim Reader, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, estimated that hiring crews for mitigation work can range from $1,000 to $3,000 an acre. He said the state needs more businesses that can turn the smaller woody materials gathered during those jobs into salable products.

"The reality is there is not a whole lot to do with it at this point," said Reader, who specializes in wood utilization and marketing.

One possibility is shredding the material into mulch, although there's no dearth of mulch suppliers along the Front Range, he said. The materials can also be made into fuel for pellet stoves or a soil amendment product known as "biochar." Another option is slash pile burning.

But using gasification, as Zapel has proposed to do, instead of simply setting woody materials aflame amounts to less carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated, said Gwen Farnsworth, a senior energy policy advisor with Boulder-based environmental law and policy organization Western Resource Advocates. Biomass plants that use gasification generate emissions similar to natural gas plants, she said. She was not familiar with the details of Zapel's project.

Zapel is aware of a few other biomass energy plants across the state.

In December 2013, Eagle Valley Clean Energy began operating a biomass mill in Gypsum that uses forest waste to churn out enough electricity to power 10,000 homes.

Colorado Springs Utilities used roughly 60 tons of ground wood chips a day to generate about 4½ megawatts of energy at Drake Power Plant in the first four months of 2014. But what was supposed to be a yearlong pilot program was cut short when a fire tore through the coal-powered plant on May 5 that year, damaging Unit 5, where the energy was produced from the wood, said Amy Trinidad, a Utilities spokeswoman. The program never resumed, Trinidad said.

Zapel has also proposed building a second facility at the jail that would generate power for Colorado College.

Ian Johnson, the college's director of sustainability, said he told Zapel the school would be interested in discussions about becoming an energy customer if construction of a biomass plant was possible.

"I think there's a lot of ground to cover between now and a final power purchase agreement," Johnson said.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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