Biomass feasibility study underway

Jane Howard

A large grant-funded study on the feasibility of creating heat and energy from Cook County biomass is now underway. On December 9, 2010 a local steering committee met with the project’s hired hands and the public to discuss the direction of the study.

Thehired hands are a group of well-educated professionals. A nonprofit organization, Dovetail Partners, is overseeing the project, and they have hired independent contractor Cheryl Miller to manage the details. Miller has 20 years experience in the area of environmental policy, including projects addressing greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration.

Also on the team is Dr. Dennis Becker, assistant professor with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources. He is a researcher currently focusing on natural resource policy and the impacts of biomass harvesting. He has also conducted carbon emission analyses on biomass facilities.

Dr. Steve Bratkovich works with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and has 34 years of forestry experience, specializing in numerous things including sustainable forest management. He will look at the technologies for a variety of applications, including everything from individual homes to government buildings, resorts, and groups of buildings such as the downtown Grand Marais business district.

Dovetail Executive Director Katie Fernholz was previously a forester specializing in certifying responsible forestry practices. They were all on hand to talk about the project and answer questions.

George Wilkes of the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP) said the study will investigate the feasibility of using tree and brush waste in Cook County to provide heat and possibly electricity. Why? “We have lots of trees,” Wilkes said. “We have lots of cold weather. We also believe we have an underutilized biomass resource.”

Utilizing what might otherwise be burned to reduce the risk of forest fires could result in better managed forests, Wilkes said. The study will assess potential issues such as air pollutants and ash disposal, he said, but the small scale of biomass burning in Cook County is expected to minimize any adverse environmental effects.

Biomass energy will be a win-win situation for the state of Minnesota, Cheryl Miller said, and she expects the Cook County/Ely project to be a landmark. “Thisis a case study on how a community biomass facility should work.”

Dennis Becker’s job will be to examine the environmental and economic effects of biomass energy production in Cook County. He is not going into the project with preconceptions, however. “This is not a foregone conclusion,” he said, explaining that they might decide biomass energy is not feasible or good for this area.

“If we knew the answer we wouldn’t do the study,” said committee member John Bottger.

Biomass harvesting and energy production will be opposed by some. Before this public meeting, a member of Twin Cities-based Neighbors Against the Burner contacted the Cook County News-Herald to warn the staff against being partial to advocates of biomass energy production. The group was formed to protest the construction of a garbageburning incinerator in St. Paul. They support wind, solar, and geothermal technologies and oppose the burning of any solid fuels or wastes, including woody biomass harvested to reduce the threat of wild fires.

A similarly minded group, Energy Justice Network, cites concerns about particulates in the air and toxins in the ash from burning garbage, treated wood, and animal waste; degradation of the soil from not composting agricultural waste; and environmental damage from planting non-native “energy” crops.

A $10,000 preliminary biomass study was conducted by Chuck Hartley, director of energy management services at LHB Corporation in Duluth. That study was used to help determine if pursuing a grant for a more detailed study would be worthwhile.

This study will be funded with $113,000 from the county’s Timber Fund, money that must be used for forest improvement projects, Wilkes said. Theother source of funding is $150,000 recommended by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). This grant, shared by the City of Ely, must still be approved by the Minnesota legislature. The legislature will decide by next summer but historically follows the recommendations of LCCMR. Cook County’s funding will be used more for the engineering component of the study, and LCCMR’s funding will be used more for analyzing economic feasibility.

The end result will include an educational component to help other communities investigate the possibility of utilizing biomass for heat and energy.

The study will examine the entire process from the availability of raw materials and long-range effects of biomass harvesting to technological options and economic feasibility. Dovetail Executive Director Katie Fernholz stated

” the study will examine all the pros and cons of biomass energy production in Cook County. “When you talk about renewable energy,” she said, “it’s all about location. It’s like real estate.”

The project will culminate with a report to the county board by the fall of 2012.

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