RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the rural areas of the West, an outbreak of bark beetles has left forests full of dead and dying trees. The worry is that those trees could pose potential for major wildfires. At the same time, those dying trees are providing inspiration to some rural energy entrepreneurs. From Aspen Public Radio, Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER: Where others see blight in the mountains above Walden, Colorado, Joe Pennington(ph) sees opportunity.
Mr. JOE PENNINGTON (Saw Mill Owner): Wow. We're making good of a resource that would go to waste.
SIEGLER: The hills surrounding this small town are brown and full of dead trees. And while the mountains may not look as scenic as they once did, the surplus of dead wood is helping kick start a long-dormant timber economy. Pennington was able to open this small saw mill because of it.
Until ten years ago when Walden's largest employer, the Louisiana Pacific Lumber Mill, shut down, timber was this area's main economy.
Mr. PENNINGTON: Well, there used to be a saw mill, when I was growing up, in every town in Colorado that was in the mountains. Now we are the largest saw mill north of I-70. That's pretty shameful.
SIEGLER: Pennington says he doubts the industry will ever fully rebound. That's why he's looking to new technologies that could make his business more sustainable. Pennington's mill is saving the scraps from wood that's cut here. If all goes as planned, they'll be fed into a generator, burned and liquefied in a gas to make electricity. It's a technology known as woody biomass.
Mr. PENNINGTON: We have a potential of making enough electricity to run actually all of Jackson County and the saw mill and all. So the community's excited and rightfully should be. Maybe a window that something can happen.
SIEGLER: Actually something already is happening. One of the biomass industry's earliest promoters is just down the street teaching at the local high school.
Mr. PHIL ANDERSON (Shop Teacher): What we're doing here is taking wood chips off of the pine beetle kill that we have here…
SIEGLER: Shop teacher Phil Anderson got a grant to install this, one of the country's first woody biomass generators, three years ago. Today this machine powers the building that houses it and a nearby greenhouse.
Mr. ANDERSON: I think the kids today need to know alternative energy and how to use it. And this is the perfect opportunity for kids to learn how to operate or manage a machine like this. And the industry's is going to get bigger and bigger.
SIEGLER: The industry is growing but not as fast as Anderson and others would like it to. In many western towns there's no longer a viable timber industry nearby, and shipping the biomass to plants hundreds of miles away isn't economical. Of the 17 biomass power plants that are in operation in the U.S. today, most are located in towns near forest restoration projects, and like Walden, still have the remnants of a timber economy.
But Walden faces a different challenge: its woody biomass plant would be in competition with the town itself, which happens to own its own natural gas utility.
DEBBIE WILSON (Town Trustee, Walden, Colorado): It would be great if biomass worked in this community, but at what price?
SIEGLER: That's Town Trustee Debbie Wilson inside the River Rock Café. She says she's worried that if people start signing on to biomass - and she thinks they will - they'll drop off the gas utility, and prices for its remaining customers will soar. Those concerns caused the biomass plants' promoters to scale back from their original proposal to power the entire county. Now they hope to power the saw mill and some buildings and kick the excess electricity back onto the grid.
For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.