- by Scott Miller, March 22, 2015, Post Independent

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"430","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 333px; height: 250px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;"}}]]A plant that generates electricity by burning beetle-killed wood had only been operating for a few months when a December fire badly damaged the facility’s conveyor system. The plant has been closed since, and will probably remain closed until summer.

The plant, built by Provo, Utah-based Eagle Valley Clean Energy, used about $40 million in federal loan guarantees to finance the project. The idea was to use beetle-killed wood to generate electricity, since there’s a decades-long supply of dead trees in the forests around Gypsum. The plant was intended to generate about 11.5 megawatts of power per hour — 1.5 megawatts to power the plant and 10 megawatts to be sold to Holy Cross Energy. That’s enough for about 10,000 homes, backers say.

Some neighbors of the plant have worried about air, water and noise pollution. But an Environmental Protection Agency website lists only two minor water-quality violations — one each in 2012 and 2013 — and no enforcement actions against the plant.

In a recent phone call, neighbor Derek Bretta said he’s concerned that beetle-killed wood chips are still being moved around on the site, creating dust.

Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll said the plant’s town approvals allow wood storage, and said it has to be moved around regularly to prevent spontaneous combustion.

Combustion of another kind led to the Dec. 13 fire on the conveyors. Eagle Valley Clean Energy spokeswoman Sarah Baker wrote in an e-mail that the fire didn’t damage the boilers or generators, but damaged the conveyors badly enough that it’s going to take another “few months” to repair.

Shroll noted that the plant at the time of the fire was operating without a town-issued certificate of occupancy, generally a requirement before occupying a home or commercial building.

In her e-mail, Baker replied that the plant at the time of the fire was in the “...late stage commissioning and final construction, which normally takes a year or more for an industrial power plant and usually happens before a certificate of occupancy is issued at the completion of construction. It had already passed all fire, safety and security inspections and only minor check list items with the town of Gypsum remain, such as the landscaping punch list and completion of a few easements.”

Until the plant starts producing power again, Baker wrote that all the employees continue to go to work every day.

Shroll said the plant and town are negotiating terms of re-opening.

Meanwhile, Holy Cross Energy is waiting for the plant to come on line again.

Holy Cross Energy CEO Del Worley said that the plant running at full capacity would generate about 7 percent of the utility’s energy. With the plant under repair, Worley said Holy Cross is buying conventionally-generated power from Xcel Energy. In case any of Holy Cross’s renewable electricity sources is disabled, Xcel automatically fills any gaps in Holy Cross’s power supply.

Those alternative sources are going to become more important as Holy Cross attempts to meet a goal of having 30 percent of its power generation from renewable sources by 2020.

Holy Cross chief financial officer Tim Charlton said the company in 2014 met a previous goal of having 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2015.

Those sources include solar and wind power, as well as a power plant that generates power by burning methane gas from old mine shafts near Somerset, in Gunnison County on the west side of McClure Pass along Colorado Highway 133.

Worley said meeting the 30 percent goal is going to take a “portfolio” of energy sources, including the Eagle Valley Clean Energy plant.