BENSON -- On a clear day, it's possible to stand on the highest ground on Mary Jo and Luverne Forbord's Prairie Horizons farm and see the state's pioneer green energy markets in both Benson and Morris.
Some 11 miles to the south in Benson, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and the Fibrominn electric plant are bioenergy pioneers.
The ethanol plant uses a gasifier to produce a synthetic gas. It replaces a portion of the natural gas used to fire its boilers and driers.
The plant is currently using wood as the fuel for the gasifier, but will be switching to corn cobs, according to Andy Zurn, engineering manager.
Eventually, Zurn said, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company intends to expand its use of biomass from the current 70 to 80 tons a day to 300 tons a day, and virtually end its reliance on natural gas imported from outside the region.
Zurn said months of testing have demonstrated that the gasifier technology works well, and best of all, biomass can produce energy at lower cost than the natural gas it is replacing.
There is lots of farmer interest in providing corn cobs too. As a farmer-owned cooperative, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company asked for corn cobs from 5,000 acres of land, and its members offered cobs from 20,000 acres, according to Luverne Forbord, a member of the cooperative's feedstock committee.
And why not? The company is offering to hire a custom combiner to harvest the corn and pull the cob caddie that will keep the cobs as biomass. It will cost about $30 to $35 per acre to harvest the corn this way, but the corn cobs have an energy value of approximately $75 per acre, according to Zurn.
Fibrominn is combusting turkey manure mixed with wood chips to produce electricity, but could replace the wood with other types of biomass.
Nearly 25 miles to the north in Morris, the tips of a large wind turbine erected on the University of Minnesota-Morris campus can be seen spinning.
But it's not the wind turbine that has caught the Forbords' eyes. The University of Minnesota-Morris will soon feed biomass to a gasifier that will heat its buildings on campus, according to Joel Tallakson, who is working on the project with the West Central Research and Outreach Center.
The University is testing everything from biomass harvested on state-owned Wildlife Management Area lands to corn stover gleaned from area farms as the fuel source, he said.
The University will need around 10,000 tons of biomass a year, which is small in comparison to Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company needs. But Tallakson pointed out that to harvest that much stover on farmland without depleting the soil will require the take from 5,000 acres.
Tallakson explained that as the demand for biomass grows, usage will exceed the amount of crop residue available and there will be a need to plant more crops specifically for energy.