A logging train on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. (Photo by J.C. Burns via Creative Commons)

Biomass key to Upper Peninsula’s future renewable portfolio

As stakeholders gather today in Marquette, Michigan to discuss the Upper Peninsula’s energy future, the extent to which renewable energy — particularly, woody biomass — plays a role will be a central topic.

Experts say it’s a dependable source that can be dispatched when needed, a sort of base upon which to expand wind and solar. Moreover, the U.P. is rich with forest waste products that are already widely deployed as a way to heat and cool buildings there.

“There is wind potential, there is low-quality solar potential,” said Jeremiah Johnson, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s School for Natural Resources and Environment. “But those don’t really solve the problem of reliability concerns with the Presque Isle [power plant] retirement. You need a firm resource to do that. A firm source is biomass.

“I wouldn’t dismiss the role of wind and solar, but you wouldn’t look at wind or solar as a means to solve reliability problems.”

Already a major resource

So far nearly all of the renewable power generated in the U.P. comes from hydroelectric systems, according to figures provided by the Michigan Public Service Commission. Seven different utilities are generating a total of 164 MW of hydroelectric power, the numbers show. Among non-utility companies, another 72 MW is generated with hydro, biomass and wind. (Additional, and mostly likely small, projects were not included because they are not used for compliance with the state’s renewable portfolio standard.)

But Bill Cook, a forester and biologist for Michigan State University Extension based in Escanaba, says the MPSC numbers are misleading and don’t account for the role biomass plays in district heating and cooling.

“The words ‘energy’ and ‘power’ are not synonymous,” he said. “The largest renewable energy fuel source in Michigan, hands down, is wood.”

Going forward, woody biomass looks increasingly popular as a power source. Geothermal can be done on a small scale to heat and cool buildings; solar is intermittent and doesn’t solve base-load demand; and wind turbines, particularly offshore, are aesthetically controversial in the pristine peninsula.

The U.P.’s largest biomass facility, at 17.7 MW, is owned by L’Anse Warden Electric Company and started operating in 2009. The plant was converted from a former coal and natural gas-powered generating station.

Johnson provided a “back of the envelope” calculation showing that the U.P. would need roughly 250,000 acres of a dedicated energy crop to replace Presque Isle’s capacity. Another option is retrofitting the Presque Isle plant to run on a combination of coal and biomass.

“Those are pretty costly options and take time to execute as well,” he said.

Cook agrees that replacing Presque Isle with a single biomass-powered plant would be “next to impossible.” Rather, Cook envisions a series of combined heat and power plants, spread throughout the U.P., with capacities in the 20 MW to 30 MW range.

“I think (biomass) is the most logical way to provide base load electricity to the extent the resource will allow,” Cook said.


In the coming weeks, the Keweenaw Renewable Energy Coalition will present a formal “energy security and efficiency plan for two of 15 Upper Peninsula counties facing enormous electricity rate increases needed to keep an aging, dirty, coal-fired power plant online,” according to a press release last week.

“We are responding to having the nation’s second-highest electric rates,” KREC president Melissa Davis said in a statement.

The coalition’s solution, which has drawn input from a variety of experts and from a diverse group of ratepayers, is a “reliable, interconnected, renewable energy plan that covers 13 percent of the U.P.’s residents. We intend to network with experts from the other 13 counties to develop additional plans for the rest of the U.P., based on our success here.”

The plan will blend “modest amounts” of biomass for base-load power, coupled with power from wind and solar. The proposal includes a plant that would run on forest residue, such as “small trees, branches, tops and un-merchantable wood left in the forest after the cleaning, thinning or final felling of forest lands.”

Sam Lockwood, of the KREC, told The Keweenaw Report website last week that small biomass plants in the 10 MW range would take about 18 months to build, as proposed in the plan. He did not specify the number and location of those plants. Davis declined to share a preliminary draft of the plan.

Shelie Miller, another professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, studies the trade-offs of pursuing new energy sources.

“With fossil-fuel sources, there are going to be environmental and social implications of dealing with those. On the other hand, renewable energy is sometimes not as easy to deal with on reliability and dispatchability,” Miller said. “Biofuels are a dispatchable resource, you don’t have to worry about intermittency issues. But you do have to worry about land use issues and sustainable management of forests.”

Abhilash Kantamneni, an engineer at Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center, was recently awarded a federal grant to study the energy potential at seven different industrial parks in the Upper Peninsula.

“It’s easy for people to dismiss renewables as being intermittent,” he said. “But no one is saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all coal and natural gas.’ We’re talking about a planned, phased deployment of locally owned sources being integrated into the grid.”

Kantamneni has promoted the Keweenaw region as a particularly good place for rooftop solar that averages a shorter time for return on investment than elsewhere in the state.

Since Michigan’s 2008 renewable energy law passed, which includes a 10 percent renewable portfolio standard, Kantamneni says that the cost of electricity generated from renewables is half of what it would be to build a new coal plant.

“As far as potential goes, we get twice as much sunlight as Germany does,” Kantamneni said. “Lake Superior is one of the best wind zones in the state, but it’s difficult at this point to have them line up exactly where the grid structure is.”

But given the pace at which the “energy crisis” is unfolding in the U.P., the region’s energy transition may be forced to take place at a faster rate than elsewhere — and could serve as a model.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for Michigan to be a leader in the world of renewable energy,” Kantamneni said. “It’s in Michigan’s best interest to slowly diverge themselves from utility companies and Wisconsin and become increasingly self reliant on their assets.”

Cook, of MSU Extension, agrees: “This particular power plant closure is the harbinger of things to come in the Midwest with a lot of these old coal plants that are going to need upgrades. Presque Isle is sort of the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.”

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories leading up to the U.P. Energy Summit on Oct. 28. Watch for more coverage of the summit tomorrow.

Part 1: U.P. goes head-to-head with its energy future.

Part 2: As U.P. faces energy crisis, a lesson in regulatory hindsight.

Part 3: Abandoned Michigan mineshafts could be new energy option.

6 thoughts on “Biomass key to Upper Peninsula’s future renewable portfolio

  1. Bill Cook, a forester states, “The largest renewable energy fuel source in Michigan, hands down, is wood.” And, “I think (biomass) is the most logical way to provide base load electricity to the extent the resource will allow,” Sorry but this is ridiculous and not at all true. (well, his play on words, “the extent the resource will allow is true”)
    The largest, and most logical, and free energy fuel, as in FREE, ZERO fuel cost is wind. And wood is renewable? hah,,not in your lifetime!!! I’m always amazed that anyone would consider it a good idea to cut down the forests for fuel. And it doesn’t matter if your doing it to fuel your electric plants or turning you trees (or corn fields) into gas for cars. Its an absurd idea and one that can only come from a self interested party be it the small logging companies or a single industry that’s sucking up the corporate welfare by dumping its energy costs on the public as is the case in the UP with the iron ore companies. And this after they dumped their dirty coal fired plants onto the public via the local utility. And if anyone thinks the self interests of the iron mines or utilities that cater to them give a damn if there’s a tree standing 30 years from now is a fool. Wise up people. Look to the thumb area of the state and build wind farms. You get your power with zero fuel costs and you keep the self interests from turning your lands into poisoned deserts. And if you can keep the greed out of your utilities and regulatory agencies, and if you can make industry pay its fair share, your energy costs will go down.

  2. This article reveals a lot of old-school thinking about biomass generation, which turns out to be incredibly expensive unless the wood is burned in a repowered plant. The most expensive power plant to operate in Wisconsin is We Energies’ Rothschild plant, a 50 MW unit that also supplies steam to a neighboring paper products company. The fuel cost for that plant, which cost $269 million, averages about 10 cents/kWh. All-in production cost at Rothschild should average in excess of 20 cents/kWh in 2014. Rothschild was intended to operate as a baseload unit, but high fuel costs have militated against that expectation. It hardly need to be added that wind and solar generators can compete very well against those prices and can be placed in service much faster than a greenfield biomass plant can.

  3. The Keweenaw Renewable Energy Coalition will unveil its energy security and efficiency PLAN to the public on November 10, 2014. Once the venue is confirmed, it will be shared with stakeholders across the state. The PLAN will cover Houghton and Keweenaw Counties that sit at the end of a 69 kV transmission line in UPPCO/OCREA/ATC territory. Those counties represent 13% (app. 38,000 residents) of the U.P.’s total population of just over 308,000. You will hear a PLAN based on wind, solar, low-grade geothermal, and biomass; biomass, to Joe Richardson’s point above, that concentrates on the unmerchantable residues left from sustainable commercial logging. The biomass piece of the PLAN comes from Finland’s experts, who improve the quality of their timber stands with proper maintenance. Wind from the architect of the largest wind farm in Michigan. Geothermal from local experts on mineshaft geothermal.
    “…natural gas is not a near-term ‘low’ greenhouse-gas alternative, in absolute terms or relative to coal. Moreover, it does not provide a unique or special path to renewable energy, and as a result, it is not bridge fuel and is not a useful component of a sustainable energy plan.” (Jacobson et al. 2013, Energy Policy journal, p. 587.)

  4. I did want to add that biomass is a decent option for district heating systems that have small generating units as part of the package. At RENEW, we have learned through the years that increases to the capacity of the biomass co-gen facility have a corresponding effect on fuel prices, due to the expense of transporting wood fuel from longer distances. Going bigger also adds complexity–and therefore costs–to on-site fuel storage and handling systems. The Rothschild plant referenced in my earlier post is not a good model for the U.P. I’m a great believer in keeping biomass systems small and weighted toward the thermal side of the equation.

  5. Sam Lockwood, I hear what your saying about what will constitute biomass and it being non marketable debris from the logging operations. “biomass, to Joe Richardson’s point above, that concentrates on the unmerchantable residues left from sustainable commercial logging” But lets be honest, just look at the picture at the header of the article. That’s a train load of trees that were cut and not the cast off wood chips or piles of brush and bark. With biomass the forests will be cut down so a commercial enterprise can get cheap electricity, and when that energy source is gone, the commercial endeavors will ask for more give aways (corporate welfare) from the public or they will simply take their money and leave. And the citizens will be left with the rotting wood chips and bark they will leave behind and nothing else.

  6. Joe, the photo was just to illustrate that Michigan still has an active logging industry which could supply wood waste, not to imply that the logs aboard it are intended to be fuel for power plants. We probably could have been more clear about that.