The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded businesses in Pagosa Springs and Mancos innovation grants worth $250,000 each to advance projects involving turning trees and brush into electrical energy and using charred wood as a soil additive.
The plan of J.R. Ford of Renewable Forest Energy to turn trees and undergrowth into chips that would be gasified to generate electricity has taken years of development.
“It’s been a long time,” Ford said this week by telephone. “I think I did my first feasibility study in 2007.”
The energy-generating phase lies in the future, but Ford is thinning overgrown stands of timber on private holdings and in the San Juan National Forest. He produces lumber to sell from trees 10 inches in diameter and larger, and turns trees smaller than 10 inches into chips.
He is selling some chips and stockpiling the remainder in anticipation of opening a generating plant.
Ford uses two pieces of Swedish manufactured equipment in his logging operation, which is centered in Archuleta County but also goes into La Plata, Hinsdale and Mineral counties.
One piece of equipment is a tracked eight-arm machine called a feller buncher that reaches into a stand of timber, cuts trees and snakes them out. Another machine chips them into rounds 1.5 inches in diameter, weighs them and feeds them into a trailer to be transported to be burned.
At a generating plant, the chips, under heavy pressure, will be converted to gas to turn a generator. The plan will produce 3½ to 5 megawatts of power, Ford said.
The USDA grant will cover one-third of the cost of the engineering involved in designing the power plant, he said. Ford has been negotiating with La Plata Electric Association about buying the power.
Western Excelsior will use its grant to develop a prototype system to make biochar to be used as a soil amendment, said Kyle Hanson, the firm’s business manager in Mancos. Biochar is a charcoal produced by pyrolysis – heating organic matter to extreme temperatures in the absence of oxygen.
Western Excelsior, headquartered in Evansville, Indiana, has manufacturing plants in Mancos and Macon, Georgia, where it makes a variety of erosion-control items – a process that produces abundant waste, Hanson said.
Among the by-products are shredded aspen, cores of logs, wheat straw and coconut husks.
“A biochar production facility utilizing the waste will create jobs, fortify agriculture, speed mine-land reclamation and provide a zero-landfill facility,” Hanson said.
Manufacturing erosion-control devices and transporting the waste creates fine particulate that blows around, coating the surrounding area. Turning the waste into biochar would reduce a potential environmental hazard.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” Hanson said. “We hope to have a prototype system in place by the end of the year.”