The hills above Grand Marais, Minnesota, with Lake Superior in the background. (Photo by Andy Tinkham via Creative Commons)

Beyond the reach of natural gas boom, Minnesota towns look to biomass

Cheap natural gas prices have pushed many biomass projects to the back burner in recent years, but it’s a different story in rural communities without access to pipelines.

In northern Minnesota, two towns are considering their next steps after preliminary studies showed that small, wood-burning district heating systems could have economic and environmental benefits — if they can find a way to finance the up-front construction costs.

Grand Marais, on the north shore of Lake Superior, and Ely, on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, currently rely on fuel oil or propane for heat.

“Up here, there’s no natural gas because there’s no pipeline. We live on solid rock, so everything is trucked into the community,” says Paul Nelson, chairman of the Cook County Biomass Working Group in Grand Marais.

Meanwhile, both towns are surrounded by aging forests that could provide more than enough sustainably harvested wood to power a community-scale district heating plant, according to an analysis by Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis environmental nonprofit.

Origins in fire safety

Grand Marais’ biomass project grew out of a local forest fire safety effort. The Firewise campaign encourages homeowners to regularly clear brush as a way to protect their homes from encroaching flames. The result: “mountains” of sticks and leaves that are dropped off at designated gravel pits for burning on days when the fire risk is low.

It seemed like a waste to Nelson and others, who began promoting the idea of a community biomass plant. Voters approved a 1 percent county sales tax in 2009 that authorized the county board to spend the revenue on, among other things, feasibility and design studies for a district heating plant in Grand Marais.

Around the same time, the Ely Alternative Energy Task Force began investigating the potential for biomass heating there. It’s since focused on two possible projects, one at the local community college and another that could heat the hospital, school district, and possibly extend to some larger business customers, too.

A new state-funded analysis by Dovetail Partners examined economic, environmental and fuel supply issues for multiple options in Ely and Grand Marais.

“There are a range of biomass energy system sizes and types that could be used in northern Minnesota, and district heating systems appear to make financial sense for many communities in this region,” the report concludes.

Besides the lack of competition from natural gas, another reason biomass district heating shows promise is technological improvements that have made smaller scale systems cleaner and more economical, says Kathryn Fernholz, Dovetail’s executive director.

“The technology has come a long ways, even from ten or 15 years ago,” says Fernholz. “People who think back to the energy crisis of the 1970s and the wood stoves — forget it. That is ancient history compared to what we’re talking about now in terms of the efficiency and the low emissions of these systems.”

The latest estimates for capital costs range from $1.9 million to $16.9 million in Ely, depending on the scale of the system, and between $995,000 and $11.8 million in Grand Marais. Fernholz said both towns could likely design projects with simple payback periods in the range of five to ten years.

‘We’ve got biomass coming out of our ears’

The piles of brush gathered from people’s yards wouldn’t be enough to power a heating plant, says Nelson, but backers in Grand Marais have found another plentiful source: over-aged aspen, which needs to be removed to make the forests healthier.

“We have an unending supply [of aspen], so the price on that would be very stable over the long term,” says Nelson.

Dovetail’s fuel supply analysis showed both communities would have more than enough fuel using only the tops of limbs from trees that are already harvested within a 60-mile radius. The tree tops go into a fuel known as hog fuel, a blend of bark, leaves, and branches that aren’t used by paper or lumber industries.

“We’ve got biomass coming out of our ears out there,” says Dave Olsen, a member of the Ely Alternative Energy Task Force. “We want to use the junk that the Forest Service and others are just having to burn in the woods to get rid of it.”

The next step in both towns is coming up with a specific business plan that outlines who will own the facilities, who the customers will be, and how much they’ll pay.

“Until we can tell them exactly what it’s going to cost, they really can’t commit,” says Olsen.

In Ely, the community college is considering whether to re-start a mothballed biomass burner on its campus. The other facility could be built as a cooperative, says Olsen. Other options might include the hospital owning it and selling heat to the school district, or those two users could jointly build and operate it.

In Grand Marais, the city’s public utilities commission is open to the idea of operating the plant. Before the city would issue revenue bonds for the project, though, it would need commitments from prospective customers that they planned to buy heat from the municipal utility instead of continuing to use their existing propane or fuel oil heaters.

“To me, it makes great sense, and it looks as if the economic analysis pencils out,” says Karl Hansen, chairman of the Grand Marais Public Utilities Commission. “I think the sentiment of the PUC is to certainly do whatever we can to support this.”

8 thoughts on “Beyond the reach of natural gas boom, Minnesota towns look to biomass

  1. bad idea – there is very little old growth left. once the idea of brush/wood is opened corporate america would move in and take what is left.

  2. lack carbon, or soot, is making a much larger contribution to global warming than previously recognized, according to research.
    Well, below this is the latest on biomass burning. It’s certainly better than coal or coal based electricity if very low emission boilers are used and especially if the project was big enough for CHP, producing electric power and space heat. If compared to propane maybe the the carbon neutrality of wood burning wood cancel the soot emissions.

    “Scientists say that particles from diesel engines and wood burning could be having twice as much warming effect as assessed in past estimates.

    They say it ranks second only to carbon dioxide as the most important climate-warming agent.

    The research is in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.”

  3. Seriously, you think this is a bad idea because the old growth timber is gone? Take a little time to contact your local, state or USDA forester to educate yourself. There is more timber growing right now in the USA than ever before in history. The truth is the capacity to utilize it is gone as the paper industry has left the country due to environmental regulatory pressures. If there are not alternative uses developed to utilize this renewable resource, the forest fire danger is going to sky rocket over the next few decades. CHP systems are widely used in Europe with great success, as well as numerous communities in North America.

  4. If I was them, I would seriously consider using a process called pyrolysis, or burning of biomass at low oxygen. This not only can produce heat and energy, it also provides bio-oil, syngas, and a product called biochar which when reindroduced in the soil increases plant growth, reduces waster loss, sequesters carbon, reduces methane, carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. A market can be produced for selling the biochar as a soil amendment, and filter media amongst other things, producing an income.

  5. If you read the article, they say nothing about using old growth forest, but aspen that needs to be removed.

  6. Hoo ray – about time. Finland has at least 300 cities/towns with central heating districts that have made a significant reduction in their dependence on fossil fuels. They actually pay landowners for the slash left from logging on their lands.

  7. If you want to comment on global warming, do some research on carbon cycling. Old growth timber, besides being a disease prone fire hazard, is a carbon emitter. Young, productive forests, such as those resulting from proper forest management(thank you corporate America), are carbon sinks. Not to mention that when wood is used instead of resource hogs like steel and concrete, you lock up that carbon for the life of the product.Feel free to take your head out of the sand and get the facts.

  8. Yes Dianne, please stop parroting talking points and learn about the project and the area. The forests in NE MN produce more than enough to supply the small scale projects they are looking at. We have a fairly strong wood products industry already. Nobody is going to ‘move in and take what’s left’. This area is remote and haul costs are prohibitive. We aren’t talking about high value timber here, this is stuff that nobody wants. And actually, we wouldn’t even be using aspen most likely. There is a market for that. Its the other species like red maple and balsam fir that need reduction. Right now we can’t do that since nobody wants the wood.