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Biomass industry quietly taking root on the prairie

Bob Ryan, European Energy Connections, shows a biomass heating system March 29 to visiting staff from U.S. Sen. Al Franken's office. The system at KMS Elementary School in Murdock heats the school's gymnasium area but could provide the main source of heat for the entire school facility next year. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

MURDOCK -- Ethanol may get the press, but there's another farm-based, biomass industry quietly taking root on the west central Minnesota prairie.

Its aim is to use agricultural residues and possibly devoted crops as the energy feedstock to provide clean and competitively priced energy to heat our homes, schools and businesses.

"It's building a whole new market," said Robert Ryan, founder of European Energy Connections. The Bird Island-based company is working to transfer European technology in biomass energy to rural Minnesota.

In some European countries, in particular Sweden, biomass is already a major source of thermal energy for residential and commercial buildings.

Ryan was among entrepreneurs working to develop the renewable energy industry in west central Minnesota who gathered March 29 at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer. They hosted staff from U.S. Sen. Al Franken's office. The Democratic senator from Minnesota is on the energy and natural resources committee. He is looking for input on what can be done to aid the development of renewable energy in Minnesota, according to the staff members.

"This is an industry that is just developing,'' said Keith Poier, president of the Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers in Priam. "We need all the support we can get whenever we can get it.''

Thanks to grant funding from Xcel Energy, MnVAP is investing $1 million in the technology, equipment and research needed to launch the biomass industry here.

New, energy-efficient technology allows MnVAP to "densify'' or produce pellets from a mixture of agricultural residues such as soybean stalks, sunflower hulls and even prairie grasses harvested from conservation lands.

MnVAP is supplying the pellets to the University of Minnesota,Morris, where a gasifier relies on the carbon-neutral biomass as its fuel to heat and help power the campus.

Poier said MnVAP's next step is to use biomass harvested within a 25- to 30-mile radius to produce pellets to heat homes and commercial operations within the same area. He believes ultimately that a dedicated crop -- perhaps alfalfa bred purposely for this purpose -- will become the preferred energy stock.

The potential market is this: In the U.S., roughly 45 percent of our energy is devoted to residential and commercial buildings, as compared to 27 percent for transportation and 25 percent for industry, according to Ryan.

Goal number one is to sell schools, and other large institutional facilities on the value of installing highly efficient biomass heating systems.

Along with providing a consistent and reliable market, large, institutional customers can also become the showrooms that biomass energy needs, according to Ryan.

The biggest challenge this emerging industry faces, he said, is consumers' lack of familiarity with it.

"If you don't have a horn to honk or a tire to kick, you don't buy the car,'' he said.

The Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg elementary school in Murdock is one place you can kick the tire of a biomass heating system. Stan Simon, an engineer from rural Kerkhoven, worked with the KMS board and Ryan to install a biomass heating system for the school's gymnasium area.

The school -- parts of which were built 90 years ago -- relies on a fuel oil system installed in 1958.

The biomass unit heats the gymnasium area at about one-half the cost of fuel oil, Simon said. The biomass unit ran at only 14 percent of capacity and could be adapted to provide the majority of heat for the school buildings next year, according to the engineer.

The Pelco biomass unit used premium wood pellets produced in Wisconsin as its fuel this year, but next year is expected to use MnVAP-produced pellets.

Biomass heat isn't just for kids. It can be for the birds too. Ryan said a poultry farmer near Murdock replaced propane heaters with biomass heaters.

Simon and Ryan said biomass energy is more economical than either fuel oil or propane. Biomass can also compete with natural gas, although the payback period is much longer, according to Ryan.

As a result, he sees the first markets for biomass heating being in rural areas not served by natural gas.

MnVAP offers the promise of being able to offer a consistent and quality fuel for biomass units. But Ryan pointed out that the industry also needs to develop other infrastructure, in particular a distribution system for the pellets.

The benefits to the region are many, he noted. Biomass can provide a new source of revenue for farmers and create new jobs. No less important, it can keep money circulating in the region that is otherwise sent out-of-state and out-of-country for fossil fuel.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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