Local Power, Healthier Forests
Glenn Walsh | 4/20/10
(Editor's Note: The following article previously appeared in the April issue of the Pagosa Post magazine.  Used by permission.)

Local businessman J.R. Ford met with the board of the La Plata Electric Association two weeks ago to discuss his plans.  More accurately, Ford discussed plans to put his four-year-old plan into action:

“I put them on notice when I did my feasibility study four years ago.  I told them ‘I am going to go away until I have something that I really need you to act on.  When I come back, it will be time to act.’”

When J.R. Ford is ready to act, things seem to follow.  A new hospital gets planned, or the county’s only private reservoir gets built, or the region’s largest-ever conservation easement is negotiated, protecting miles of the San Juan River from overdevelopment. 

The LPEA board and its engineers are ready to act as well, according to Ford:  “They wanted answers to fifty questions, and at the end our meeting, they instructed staff to go full speed ahead.”

Ford’s project involves the construction of a 5 megawatt biomass powerplant at the Cloman light industrial park.  More accurately, the powerplant is, for Ford, the engine of a much larger and more complex project.  “Our project is not about producing power.  That’s how we pay for the project.  The first focus of the project is making our forest healthy.”

Ford was generous with his time two weeks ago, and gave me an hourlong overview of his plans.  For a project that is not “about producing power,” the 5 megawatt plant — which will gasify small trees and convert that gas into electricity for the local grid — will produce enough power to provide more than a one-third of Archuleta County’s present electrical demand.

Throughout our talk, Ford emphasized other sizeable benefits a successful biomass plant would produce for the county:  reducing the threat of catastrophic fire and beetle infestation, protecting the watershed and enhancing wildlife habitat, recharging groundwater and local reservoirs, and the creation of 20 direct jobs with the first plant — and more jobs if Pagosa becomes corporate headquarters for a set of Southwestern plants.  Continued...
forest energy
A 'biomass' processing rig — a truck that grinds small diameter trees into 'fuel' — will help return Pagosa area forests to healthier "pre-settlement conditions.
Ford’s initial motives for this forward-thinking project were local.  Very local:  complaints from upset neighbors living near ranches he was managing.  “We would get all the required permits, but still get the neighbors were screaming about the burning.  We decided we didn’t need our neighbors mad at us.  But we had 3000 acres we needed to thin to maintain the health of our forest.  So I thought, ‘What can we do with these chips?’”

Six years ago, Ford called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder.  He was referred to John Scahill, a prominent chemical engineer who has overseen a spectrum of biomass projects from large scale urban waste gasifiers to village-sized coconut-powered generators in the Philippines.

“You know I was in Pagosa Springs yesterday,” Scahill remarked. “I stopped at that geothermal pool along the highway.”  The pool is directly across from Ford’s office.  Scahill then explained the then-present state of biomass energy technology: “I am afraid you are about five years ahead of the technology.  You are going to need a special gasifier, but that technology is not in existence yet.”

“I am not afraid to try something,” Ford assured Scahill.

Five years later, Ford answered the phone. “Your technology is up in western Canada right now,” Scahill reported.

A 280-acre biomass demonstration project north on Piedra Road will take place soon, if all goes as planned.  The Forest Service wants our surrounding forest lands returned to the“pre-settlement conditions” which prevailed before Spanish and American settlers arrived. 

And Ford’s biomass plant needs 18-22 green tons of biomass per acre.

The debate about just what that “pre-settlement” look should be, promises to be complicated amongst foresters and environmentalists.  Ford wants no part in the debate.  “We are willing to go by whatever the experts have decided on, and I don’t want to get into a scientific spat with the environmental community.”

What Ford wants is green biomass and he is confident that with his million dollar investment in northern European harvesting equipment, he can do a more environmentally sensitive job of harvesting while producing megawatts of power and saving the Forest Service the costs of mowing contracts.

“Everybody knows this forest has to be thinned.” Ford lamented.  “It’s killing itself.  And I can do it cheaper than anyone else.”  Two-thirds cheaper than present methods used by the Forest Service, according to Ford:  “$600-$1000 per acre treatment costs is what they are paying people to mow the forest today and I can treat three times the acreage for that.”

The 5-megawatt plant will require the small thinned-out trees from about 2,000 acres per year.  Ford estimates there are probably 530,000 acres within a 50-mile radius of Pagosa.  “About 160,000 of those acres potentially could be used for this project,” Ford estimated matter-of-factly.  “Out of that we would use 60,000 acres over thirty years.”  He then added with a smile, “And after thirty years we can go right back and start thinning the same acres again.”

Ford has planned a local project and plans to keep it local:  “Our business model in based on a 50-mile radius of Pagosa Springs.  We have to be able to get our wood supply within a 50-mile radius of Pagosa Springs — and we will sell the electricity within a 50-mile radius of Pagosa Springs.  We have stayed with a small local model, and I hope to put many of these in small communities that need the jobs.”

The 20 jobs in the forest and at the plant will pay well above Archuleta’s long-depressed rate and could shave one percentage point off the local unemployment rate.  Relative to the size of the local economy, Ford points out, “the twenty jobs are equivalent to the deal which brought 3,000 jobs United Airlines jobs to Denver.  It is a substantial investment in Archuleta County — and I don’t know anyone else who is doing that right now.”

Once an agreement with LPEA is formalized, and if the test biomass project on Piedra gives the Forest Service the pre-settlement look and Ford the green ton yield expected, the power plant will be constructed in Canada in five pieces, sent by rail and semi south, and bolted back together in Cloman Park.

Within one year, Pagosa could be producing 35 percent of its own electric with a cutting-edge renewable technology.

Even the secondary benefits of Ford’s project could be substantial.

Construction of a planned $16 million LPEA upgrade might be cut in half if the 5-megawatt plant comes on line next year. And, according to Ford, at least three and maybe seven companies could take advantage of the by-product heat and water of the biomass facility.  Ford ranked commercial greenhouses and energy-efficient Japanese kilns as potential partners.

Ford sits on the Southwest Colorado Conservation Board as the representative for Archuleta County and has been one of the more constructive critics of the oversized (35,000 acre-feet) and overpriced ($360 million) ambitions that PAWSD, the local water district, has for their Dry Gulch Reservoir project.

Ford’s project might provide two significant benefits to the area’s water quality — and quantity — in addition to the environmental and economic benefits of the biomass project, and those dividends might make the Dry Gulch project less necessary.

First, if the acreage within the watershed of local reservoirs can be returned to a pre-settlement pattern, the destructive effects of forest fires on water treatment costs — often in excess of 300 percent — can be averted. And, second, snowfall falling directly onto the ground and grasses restored by a pre-settlement treatment returns 25-75 percent more water to the local water table than snowfall suspended in brush and small trees, which is subject to 360 degrees of evaporation.

One final benefit of Ford’s promising project:  biomass guru John Scahill may become a direct beneficiary of the technology he has done so much to make practicable worldwide.  Ford met Scahill face-to-face for the first time three weeks ago. 

Seems that Scahill is building a straw bale house in Pagosa Springs and plans to retire here.

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