Conservation Capitalism

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The issue of the mountain pine beetle and the damage it has caused to Colorado forests has been on the minds of Coloradans since the 1980’s.  The initial question my research attempted to answer was, “What can be done about the mountain pine beetle to decrease consumption of the forest?”   After researching that topic and discovering that there were not many preventative measures, I decided to turn the scope of my research to, “What can be done with the damaged trees?” After compiling research on how we can utilize the infested wood, I discovered the most economical, environmentally way of disposing of the wreckage.   Founder of Confluence Energy, Mark Mathis, has opened a wood pellet plant that recycles the dead forest into a non-carbon forming heat source (Lopez).  This plant provides heat to about 40,000 Colorado homes year round.

I encourage my fellow Coloradans to take action in response to beetle killed forests and make use of this seemingly lost cause.   Although there are many uses for pine beetle infested wood such as structural, biofuel etc., the most environmentally sustainable and profitable (all other things constant) is making wood pellets for wood pellet stoves. Confluence energy is an active pellet plant that essentially grinds up trees into about ¼ inch wood pellets.   A plant of this caliber can convert about 200 tons of infested pine trees per day and  stores roughly 30,000 tons of logs waiting to be converted (Lopez, paragraph 2).   The first reason I am encouraging this is because clearly our land contains an abundant natural resource that should be utilized. (Lopez, paragraph 8)  Located deep in the Mountains of Kremmling, Colorado, Confluence Energy is surrounded by the fuel that Mathis needs to make his business flourish.  Location is key in this industry, in that firms generally don’t want to transport dead wood very far.  At the same time, there are abundant places within the Colorado Rockies that are surrounded by infested trees which could serve as potential pellet plant sites.   This demonstrates the principle of “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”   Life gave Coloradans mass amounts of dead trees and Confluence energy made pellets.

The next reason I encourage the opening of pellet plants is because this is an environmentally sustainable business opportunity.   The capitalist aspect of this argument states simply that there is money to be made with minimal barriers to entry in this particular market.   Some of the costs involved with a pellet plant would include the start-up costs for the pellet plant, the cost of the logs, and of course the time and effort invested.  Although this process seems financially out of reach and time intensive, the fuel that your business runs on (pine trees) is plentiful and close in proximity.   This would eliminate many transportation costs involved in producing pellets.  Mathis stated that his business purchases logs from private, state and federal land as well as logging enough wood to make up 1/3 of the plant’s total output (Lopez, paragraph 7).   Clearly the supply of useable trees is going to be steady as long as the wrath of the pine beetle lives on.

If beetle infested trees are simply left in the forest, they will stand for about 5 years after infestation and then collapse (Bergen, paragraph 4).   Although these dead trees play a vital role in nature such as, nesting for birds and/or additional food for the pine beetle, the resource is concentrated enough that all creatures can still survive after these trees are removed.

Another reason that the pellet process is superior to other uses is because there is zero waste involved. Logs that are being used for structural purposes must be extracted from the wilderness within 5 years of infestation before they collapse.   If the wood is left in the forest for longer than 5 years it will dry out and crack, rendering it useless for building purposes.  On the flip side, pellet plants will gladly accept this wood to grind up into a non-carbon forming heat source (Lopez, paragraph 6).  In reference to the article featured on Cleantechnica.com regarding turning infested trees into biofuel, this process is derived from new research conducted by the University of Georgia Research Foundation.  Although it was not stated directly in the article, the process is highly scientific and still in the research phase.  Any path one chooses to take is going to provide challenges, some greater than others.  One issue that faced Mathis in the beginning was how to transport these heavy bags of wood pellets to his fellow Colorado residents.  Mathis reported that after purchasing a fleet of trucks, he can now deliver bulk wood pellets to anywhere in Colorado for less than the price of natural gas (Lopez, paragraph 11).

The product of a pellet plant is obviously wood pellets and contains a fairly simple process.  The wood is put under extreme pressure and then sent through a grinder that cuts about ¼ inch long compressed wood pellets.  These pellets are then fed into a hopper on the top of a pellet stove.  Each hopper can hold 35-40 pounds of pellets.  Pellet stoves are relatively inexpensive, and take little effort to maintain. For example, a 40 pound bag of wood pellets only produces about 1 cup of ash.  A free-standing pellet stove with ventilation costs about $1000 and each 40 pound bag of pellet costs around $8-9.  Wood pellets are also much more economical than natural gas.   According to Osburn.com, a reputable pellet stove company, an average pellet stove can heat up to 1,800 sq. feet with as little as ¼ lb of pellets. (osburn.com)  Along the trail of my research, I discovered a website that allows people to compare their current energy costs/usage to other forms of energy including wood pellets. Click here to find out how much you could save on your home heating bill.

As human beings with opposable thumbs and more advanced brains than any other creature on this planet, we have a certain responsibility as a species.  Part of that responsibility is to play an active role in nature to do what we can to preserve Earth.  This responsibility can be achieved by creating a wood pellet plant to essentially bring the trees back to life.  Also this is an honest way to make a living, as well as having the moral gratitude that you are practicing environmental sustainability.

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” –Unknown

*Lower photo: Reporter Andrea Lopez with Mark Mathis of Confluence Energy.   Photos courtesy of CBS4 News.

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