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Project to produce jobs, power for Pagosa Country

Over the years, J.R. Ford has quietly worked to develop a private commercial venture in Archuleta County that — upon fulfillment — will profoundly benefit the local community and environment. Now, with real progress apparently at hand, his incredibly “green” concept is about to become reality.

Simply put, the procedure behind Ford’s ambition is called “gasification,” or the act of converting a solid (or liquid) to a gas by applying heat or a chemical process.

Ford’s particular method involves the manufacture of a synthetic gas through the intense pressurization of wood materials gathered from nearby forests. A natural chemical reaction produces the flammable substance, which fuels a large generator that ultimately yields electricity.

Following years of frustrating fire-fuels mitigation amid the forests of several area ranches, Ford formed Renewable Forest Energy LLC — a company now planning a gasification and power plant along Cloman Boulevard, adjacent to property currently zoned for light industrial use. The site is well suited to transmitting electricity to a La Plata Electric Association booster station not 2,000 feet away.

In the past, Ford’s ranch management teams worked to thin private timber, thus improving forest health while reducing the risk of wildfire, but constantly confronted limitations associated with burning slash.

Meanwhile, innumerable wood chips accumulated on the forest floor, thereby blocking sunlight essential to the growth of wild grasses and lower vegetation. Burning them was not the preferred option, lest it scorch the ground, destroy grass seed and damage nearby tree roots.

However, wood chips are exactly what Ford’s gasification process depends on. To produce them, an operator first harvests standing trees (living or dead) up to 14 inches in diameter with a tracked machine called a Feller Buncher. With eight arm extensions and a hot saw harvesting head, the buncher allows the operator to cut, bunch and stack several trees at a time.

An eight-wheel-drive Forwarder then feeds the trees into an attached chipper where they’re ground into roughly 1.5-inch-diameter chips. To determine yield, the machine also weighs the load, before transferring it to a specialty trailer for transport to a staging area. From there, the material is fed into a gasifying plant where it is pressurized and converted to fuel for the generator.

Even as we Americans tend to believe “bigger is always better,” Ford insists a 4- to 5-megawatt power plant is more than adequate to realize the program’s primary objectives, while avoiding any adverse environmental impacts. Though supplementing the local power grid is certainly one objective, restoring forest health and its appearance to a “pre-settlement” state are, perhaps, more the cause.

As Renewable Forest Energy LLC (RFE) demonstrates success, Ford intends to establish its corporate headquarters in Archuleta County, while developing similar power plants in other rural areas throughout the Four Corners states. Anticipation runs high, as RFE’s Canadian technology provider is already successfully operating a 2-megawatt plant, while a forest-thinning oversight agreement (stewardship contract) in Arizona shows many positive results from an active thinning campaign.

In the meantime, Ford’s local operation will create at least 20 new jobs, including 14 plant operators, and six field workers charged with procuring biomass materials. In a recent interview, Ford said average salaries will be well above the average for the county, overall. As more plants come on line, they’ll spawn further employment, including additional administrative positions at corporate headquarters.

To achieve the desired results, RFE will establish forest-thinning agreements with private and public entities. The company will adhere to all U.S. Forest Service environmental demands, while test plants have already proven that the gasification/power plant will meet current air quality requirements established for the San Juan Wilderness Area. To assure compliance, RFE intends to establish a stewardship agreement with the Forest Service and property owners affording thinning contracts on private lands.

The environmental benefits derived from thinning long-neglected forests are well documented. Among them; improved wildlife habitat, a reduced threat of catastrophic wildfire — including less air pollution and stream contamination, diminished bark beetle infestation, and a 25-percent increase in the amount of moisture reaching the forest floor are pivotal.

Ford also suggests, “As long as our fuel product has high moisture content (typical of the San Juan forests), our power plant will have a net water gain and all the excess water will be of quality for irrigation.”

While protecting the local water shed and increasing ground water supplies, commercial thinning operations also reduce Forest Service management expenses. They lessen the amount of (unburnable) green tonnage now sent to the county landfill, thereby prolonging the life of waste management cells. By harvesting and chipping downed and decaying trees, harmful methane levels also decrease.

To successfully operate a 4- to 5-megawatt power plant, Ford estimates an annual harvest of 40,000 green tons a year. With 15 to 25 tons per acre, that equates to about 1,600 to 2,600 acres annually. Product procurement will be confined to a 50-mile radius from the Cloman Boulevard power plant, and 90 percent of all materials will be 5- to 14-inch trees.

In an area with limited resources capable of sustaining meaningful economic development, Ford’s gasification project may be a significant step in the right direction. While directly creating jobs and enhancing the environment, RFE’s power plant will produce approximately 30 percent of the electricity now used in Archuleta County. It would also supply enough water and energy to operate a planned, year-round community greenhouse.

With new, state-of-the-art equipment ordered and arriving any day, the power plant design is now underway. Meanwhile, Ford will embark upon a private land project in April, and plans a Turkey Springs biofuels demonstration this spring. If all goes according to plan, RFE will begin plant construction by July, with hope of opening for full operation by early 2011.

chuck@pagosasun.com