'Greener' future closer, thanks to a long-distance partnership
BIRD ISLAND -- A trip to Sweden during the darkest days of winter gave Bob Ryan of Bird Island a look at what could be a bright future for west central Minnesota.
When it comes to the technology needed to utilize biomass to heat homes and businesses, Sweden is way ahead of the United States, said Ryan, president of SunRise AgriFuels. "By years'' Ryan said. "We are behind.''
Sweden obtains 26 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. The country's government has been encouraging renewable energy development since 1986, he said.
A recent announcement, however, has made Ryan optimistic about opportunities to catch up.
Rural areas -- in particular west central Minnesota -- have the most to gain by a decision to locate one of three centers for the International Renewable Energy Technology Institute at Minnesota State University-Mankato, according to Ryan.
The institute is working to make possible the transfer of renewable energy technology from Sweden to the United States. The institute will be opening centers in New York, Georgia and Minnesota as part of the project.
Ryan said the institute will include both a nonprofit, academic entity and a for-profit venture. Minnesota State University-Mankato will host the nonprofit entity in cooperation with the University of New York in Albany and the University of Georgia.
SunRise AgriFuels is a startup company in the midst of a capital campaign and wants to build a biomass pellet plant in the Renville County community of Franklin.
Its goal is to harvest soybean straw from Renville County farms and compress it into pellets that would be used to fire boilers in schools and businesses in the region, and possibly heat homes as well.
Sweden is successfully using biomass energy to heat a wide variety of homes and businesses. It is doing so in ways that are extremely efficient, Ryan said.
He toured manufacturing plants producing a variety of biomass heating systems. He left impressed by both the innovation and state-of-the-art technology he witnessed.
Ryan said he returned eager to see the same technology put to work here. His trip also made him well aware of the challenges in making that happen.
For starters, anyone who has ever traveled to Europe knows enough to leave their electrical devices at home. The Europeans favor a 220-240-volt, 50-hertz system over our 110-120-volt, 60-hertz standard.
He also discovered that most manufacturers of biomass heating systems in Sweden tend to be focused on their own specific, regional markets. Most are not set up to produce on a larger scale for export, much less to adapt them to different U.S. needs.
There are also a whole host of regulatory and proprietary issues. Ryan said both counties could benefit from measures that would allow a smooth transfer of technology while protecting proprietary rights and taking into account the different environmental standards and procedures in the two countries.
Ryan is among those who believe that west central Minnesota could benefit greatly if renewable and biomass energy sources can play as important a role in the U.S. as they do in Sweden. The area's farmlands could benefit from the markets for crops and crop residue that could be developed, and farmers could see added revenues from wind and solar projects.
It is too early to know all that the institute will be able to do, but Ryan said the partnership with Sweden and western Europe is only going to grow. He is helping organize an international conference Sept. 28 through Oct. 3 at Minnesota State University-Mankato. The conference will showcase European technology in biomass and renewable energy.