Wood pellet boiler paves way for biofuels solutions
April 9, 2010
It’s a problem on many minds in Grand County: What to do with all those dead trees out there? From furniture to landscaping, burgeoning businesses are seeking ways to create a use for the red trees that are so prominent in Colorado backyards.
Leading the charge in Granby is Mountain Parks Electric. For the past six years, MPE has been searching for a way to turn wood into an efficient, renewable energy source.
General Manager Joe Pandy joined MPE in 2004 during the outset of the pine beetle epidemic. With entire mountainsides of trees succumbing to the boring beetle, the pressure was on to find a way to put the trees to good use.
Today, the top shelf of the bookcase in Pandy’s office is lined with binders outlining ideas for turning wood into energy – some are technologies that have slid by the wayside and other are technologies so new that the binders are still marked “classified.”
The USDA granted MPE $240,000 to fund Pandy’s hunt for an industrial wood burning solution. In his search, Pandy traveled to England to research a “biomass gasifier” that captures that gas from burning wood to create Combined Heat and Power (CHP). While England’s CHP boilers were too labor intensive to be economical in the U.S., Pandy said there are a couple of companies in Colorado working on a similar solution.
Looking at the big picture, Pandy said, MPE wants to help ease America’s reliance on foreign oil. In the past two years, Tri-State – MPE’s energy supplier – has added some 76 megawatts of renewable and efficient resources to its grid, increasing its “green power” supply from 0.0 percent in 2000 to 1 percent in 2009. In 2009, 72 percent of Tri-State’s resources came from coal, 23 percent came from hydroelectric, 5 percent was natural gas and the remaining 10 percent was gained through a power purchase agreement with other suppliers.
On a smaller scale, MPE also is working to encourage commercial and residential applications of alternative power sources. To that end, Pandy is turning the MPE campus in Granby into a living demonstration of energy efficient and renewable forms of energy. The main office building is heated by geothermal heat pumps. An electric thermal storage unit stores the heat generated overnight and releases it in the office building slowly throughout the day. And, an air source heat pump helps warms an office in the warehouse.
This year, MPE installed an Osby-Parca boiler, a highly efficient boiler system specifically designed to burn wood fuels such as pellets, briquettes and wood chips. The $190,000 Swedish system heats the co-op’s 30,000 square foot warehouse, plus a garage with capacity left over to heat another large building – possibly the elementary school, Pandy said.
A $25,000 grant from the Governor’s Energy Office helped fund the project.
Granby is the first place in the U.S. to have an Osby-Parca. Before installation, the instruction manual had to be translated from Swedish and all the tables, charts and instruments had to be converted from the metric system. After working out some major glitches caused by the daily, 50-degree temperature swings in Granby (Sweden, located along the same parallel as Alaska, doesn’t have that issue), the boiler is now fully functional.
“We knew we were going to be the test case,” Pandy said.
In order to operate the boiler, Confluence Energy in Kremmling first loads 25 tons of pellets into an outdoor silo. The pellets move along a conveyor into a smaller storage tank inside that slowly releases them into the furnace. The furnace heats water, which runs through underground pipes into an radiant heating system built into the concrete floor of the warehouse. It also runs a hot-water-to-air heat exchanger wall unit in the garage. The small amount of ash created by the process is deposited into a 10 gallon bucket that is cleaned out weekly.
MPE pays $150 for a ton of bulk pellets, or about $7,500 this year to operate the boiler. It’s a cheaper source of heat than propane, natural gas or oil and only slightly more expensive than an air-source heat pump. Coal is still the cheapest heat source in Colorado followed closely by geothermal heat, Pandy said.
Considered carbon-neutral, wood pellets produce fewer carbon emissions than natural gas or propane and about the same as oil. Using the pellets supports a local company and the commercial sized pellet-fired boiler creates a larger market for the pellets than a residential pellet stove. (An industrial application for wood pellets would be even better, Pandy added.) Pandy said he is hoping to encourage more Colorado businesses to install these boilers for their commercial warehouses and buildings. With hopes that its wood-fired boilers will catch on, Osby Parca has already shipped 10 more units to a warehouse in Kremmling.
The future of biofuel
In the same way that the pellet-fired boiler uses hot water lines to heat the co-op’s warehouse, an industrial-sized boiler could someday heat the entire town. Pandy envisions, in the near future, bringing district heating to new residential developments, commercial development and government buildings.
“It’s a realistic goal for the next decade,” he said.
Rather than each home having its own heat pump or furnace, heat would be supplied to houses and businesses via hot water pipes underground and radiant in-floor heat or hot-water-to-air heat exchangers inside the building.
“It’s the way they do it in Sweden, and Minneapolis/St. Paul,” Pandy said.
The future of wood-fueled power and heat relies on these developing technologies and those yet to be discovered. Some day wood fuels may provide a cheaper, cleaner source of power and heat than coal. Such a technology could bring jobs to Grand County and put to use a renewable resource found in our own back yards.
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or email@example.com.