In Boulder County a tree lives long after it falls, thanks to a heating system at the county’s offices that burns biomass cut from the area’s forests.
Biomass from fallen trees is heating a county government building. Boulder County Parks & Open Space fronted $350,000 dollars to install a biomass heating fuel system in their new complex with the intention it’d pay for itself in 15 years. Their decision has paid off and their success in running the unique system has others doing the same.
The heating system was installed in 2005 and Therese Glowacki, Resource Management Manager at Boulder County Parks & Open Space, says the machine has already paid for itself. It has an expected lifespan of at least another 12 years.
BCPOS started a feasibility study three years before completing their new office complex on Vrain Road in Longmont in 2005. The cost of natural gas was expected to fluctuate and increase over time and because Boulder County supplies its own wood the price of that fuel would remain fairly consistent.
The study found that the natural gas heating system would have been far less expensive upfront. However, as the price of natural gas increases the biomass system becomes relatively less expensive to operate because of the county’s wood supply and was expected to save the county up to $20,000 dollars a year for the one facility.
The biomass heating system not only saves the county money but follows through on their commitment to sustainability.
“We are huge proponents of zero waste and we have looked at and installed all kinds of energy saving processes throughout Boulder County,” Glowacki said.
The county zero waste program includes a fleet of electric vehicles, small incentives to get people to upgrade their energy efficiency through solar panel installation and energy efficient programs supporting private landowners and businesses helping to reduce heat waste.
Installing the machine made perfect sense.
Robert Finocchario, the main mechanic for the machine, makes sure the machine is running properly every day.
“It’s unique. Most county buildings run on natural gas,” Finocchario said.
One of Finocchario’s main tasks is making sure the machine doesn’t accumulate ash and that sand and gravel don’t clog the grates. The machine needs to keep good air flow to be clean burning and meet air quality standards. Contamination of the wood chips that fuel the machine can make cleaning the system harder, meaning it takes commitment and coordination with the forestry staff to produce high-quality materials from forestry projects.
Boulder County owns and manages about 30,000 acres of forest that is public land. Those forests are overgrown.
“We have had 120 years of fire suppression and our trees are really dense on the public land that we have purchased and that we manage,” Therese Glowacki said. “Our goal is to manage that in the best ecological way possible and that means thinning the trees.”
On the Front Range of Colorado fire would have managed forests, but with all of the people living here now, it’s not feasible to do prescribed burns in the way the fire would have burned historically before people moved in.
“A lot of people look at the forest and say, ‘Well, I want the forest to be there,’ and they need to understand that is not how these forests evolve,” Stefan Reinold, Senior Forester at Boulder County Parks & Open Space, said. “They evolved to have disturbances.”
Forest management enhances wildlife habitat, develops tree diversity and improves firefighter’s ability to defend houses and neighborhoods in the event of a wildfire.
The fuel for 2018 is coming from a forestry project at Reynolds Ranch Open Space where thinning and patch-cuts have been prescribed.
“We’re trying to build a mosaic [of trees] back into the landscape,” Reinold said.
Before the Boulder County office complex system, there were only two machines out West, one in Nederland and one in Darby, Montana. The heating system was manufactured by Messersmith in Michigan and the system was more common on the east coast in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.
When the system was first completed visitors from all over came to see how it worked and was set up. Now Gilpin County has one for their transportation building, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado has one, Leadville has one that heats their public swimming pool and Colorado State University has one on their extension campus.
The original system in Nederland, which didn’t work out because of problems with their fuel supply, was purchased by Boulder County and moved to the Boulder County jail.
The biomass system requires approximately 650 tons of wood per year to heat the entire complex of five buildings totaling 95,000 square feet.
On average, BCPOS thins between 100 and 150 acres per year, generating about 15 to 20 tons of fuel per acre. In 2017, the forestry staff processed and hauled a total of 1,209 tons of biomass for this system and the one at the Boulder County jail.
“We are very proud of our system. It really has taken a lot of collaboration. Our foresters are committed to providing the best quality wood. Our staff that runs it, they’re mechanics and they really want the system to run well,” Glowacki said.
It takes effort on everyone’s part to have the system run efficiently and Glowacki believes the county’s commitment to using a renewable resource shows Boulder County is dedicated to doing the right thing.