Gov. Bill Ritter has been doing some heavy lifting - and not just with the state's weighty budget.
Ascending a 120,000-pound machine that can lift 90,000 pounds in a single scoop, Ritter sat at the controls of an L-90 log loader on Friday and deftly raised a stack of timber at the Confluence Energy Plant in Kremmling.
"I think I was more nervous than he was," plant owner Mark Mathis said later.
Asked how he did, Ritter said, "My dad was a heavy-equipment operator, so he was smiling down on me when I got on it."
Ritter toured Mathis' wood-pellet plant - with all its log stacking, chip storing and pellet bagging - as a way to get the word out about Colorado's potential in a "New Energy Economy."
"I talk about the plants in Kremmling here and in Walden constantly as examples of Colorado being able to promote a clean energy future," Ritter said. "At the same time, (we can) change the way we think about consumption or production.
"For us, we see this pine beetle (epidemic) certainly is an extreme problem, a significant challenge. But it also presents us with an opportunity to change the way we consume energy and to do it in a cleaner fashion."
Confluence Energy and its competitor Rocky Mountain Pellet Mills in Walden may be the only pellet manufacturers in the country that process their products directly from whole, unwanted trees.
The pellets, used in stoves to heat homes, are considered carbon-neutral sources of energy.
But biomass energy represents only a sliver of Colorado's overall energy-economy portfolio. The state has yet to attract endeavors such as an ethanol plant that uses woody biomass, which would help to address the roughly 2 million acres of dead trees in the state, providing a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.
Canadian bio-refining company Lignol Energy Corp. and Suncor Energy nearly pursued an $80 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Grand Junction but backed out in January due to the uncertainty of credit markets.
"There is still the capability to have that industry here," Ritter said. "I don't think that conversation is over."
But one of the challenges is the state's lack of an industry in timber harvesting, Ritter added.
About two years ago, Colorado-based Range Fuels Inc. took its cellulosic ethanol production plans to Georgia instead of its home state - forsaking Colorado lodgepole for Georgia pines.
"Thanks to Georgia's environmentally sensitive stewardship of its forests for the past 50 years, Range Fuels can take what is traditionally considered a waste product and turn it into a source of transportation fuel," Range Fuels CEO Mitch Mandich was quoted as saying in renewableenergyworld.com.
"What can we do to drive this mechanism to create demand in this state?" Mathis said he asked the governor to consider.
His pellet manufacturing plant, like John Frink's in Walden, was "completely privately funded," and harvest of trees for pellets has taken place on private lands. The two plants combined will produce more than 200,000 tons of wood pellets a year, providing enough heat for more than 60,000 homes and businesses.
But the challenges are stacked as high as Grand County's log piles.
Confluence and Rocky Mountain compete with oil, coal and natural gas to provide consumers' heat.
In order to keep costs competitive, the manufacturers look to government officials for their influence on stimulus dollars, for example, or negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service.
Accessing trees by way of federal salvage sales is too costly for the pellet industry, Mathis said, so the cost to pellet consumers could go up when material harvested on private lands run out. And transport of materials would be more efficient if his biomass enterprise could have access to rail.
"Let's not waste this," Frink said. "People across the country would love to have this resource that Colorado has."
"We will continue to look for ways to promote pellets as a viable fuel source and increase demand for these products," Ritter said.
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.