MORRIS -- Ernie Schmitt's office with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Alexandria might seem like a sleepy outpost in the world's quest for new sources of clean energy.
But not infrequently, the forestry technician's phone chirps with calls from places as disparate as the state of Oregon, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"They are interested in what is happening here,'' said Schmitt. Central Minnesota is viewed by many as "somewhat of an epicenter for biomass energy,'' said Schmitt.
That epicenter was the campus of the University of Minnesota-Morris on Thursday. Schmitt, researchers and private industry entrepreneurs leading the charge for biomass energy offered their look at how the new industry is growing, and the challenges it faces. Schmitt used a survey to identify 54 biomass users of various sizes across the state interested in markets for the carbon-neutral fuels they need. Most are using wood, but Schmitt said many of the larger and more innovative of the new biomass users are located in west central and south central Minnesota and relying on agricultural products.
They range from the Fibrominn electric generation plant in Benson to the soon-to-open Koda Energy combined heat and power plant in Shakopee.
Fibrominn annually uses 500,000 tons of turkey litter and a mix of wood wastes to produce 55 megawatts of electricity. The Koda Energy plant will use 50,000 tons of co-products (mainly barley) from the Rahr Malting Company along with a mix of 120,000 tons of other biomass such as prairie grass.
The Shakopee plant will provide all of the heat and electricity needed for Rahr Malting's operations, and still provide electricity to serve as a base-load supplier to Xcel Energy, according to Paul Kramer, vice president of operations with Rahr.
Koda Energy -- a partnership between the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Rahr Malting -- sees opportunities to raise prairie grasses on the Minnesota River floodplain to supply fuel for the plant and improve water quality, according to Kramer.
The company is also looking to farmers to provide crop residues and possibly raise energy crops to supply the plant. "The answers are out there,'' said Kramer of the search for biomass energy. "We just haven't asked all the questions.''
Many of the questions are being asked right here. This past autumn, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company showed that it is possible to harvest corn cobs as a biomass fuel source for a gasifier at its ethanol plant in Benson, according to Gene Fynboh, a member of the cooperative's board of directors.
Corn cobs are also to be test burned with coal at the Willmar Municipal Utilities power plant to produce electricity. Someday, a dedicated biomass energy plant could become part of the mix.
Keith Poier, project manager with the Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers in Priam, said the farmer cooperative will be testing technology to pulverize biomass into particles so tiny that they can be measured in microns, like smoke. The goal is to make bulky biomass more dense and compact, and in turn make it more economical to transport, store and convert to energy.
Poier said 16 possible biomass "fuels" will be tested, ranging from prairie grass to sweet corn silage.
The demand for biomass is growing worldwide due to two realities, according to Michael Noble, director of Fresh Energy. The world is on the verge of peak oil production, and the future will bring rising prices as demand outpaces supply, according to Noble.
And, he said worldwide concern about global climate change has led to action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and support the use of carbon-neutral energy sources.
But don't look for biomass to supply all of our energy needs. Minnesota would need to harvest 100 million tons of biomass each year to replace 80 percent of the fossil fuel it now uses, according to Mark Lindquist, biofuels program manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. Add up all of the crops and forestry products harvested each year in the state for both food and fiber, and the total is in the range of 65 million tons, he said.
Speakers also cautioned against looking for a quick or easy transition to biomass fuels.
On the coldest day of the winter, the University of Minnesota-Morris campus was unable to heat its buildings with a newly installed gasifier that uses corn stover as its fuel. The controls for the system were designed for a wood-based fuel and are not working as needed with stover, explained Lowell Rasmussen, associate vice chancellor of physical plant and master planning on the campus.
With its natural gas supply interrupted due to the high demand brought on by the cold, the campus found itself burning 5,000 gallons of oil per day in place of the corn stover, Rasmussen said.
The biomass gasifier at the Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative in Little Falls stands idle and cold as well, and has for months. The company is in the midst of litigation over its design, said Kerry Nixon, plant manager.
Despite the setback, Nixon said the cooperative is looking at the possibility of developing a second gasifier. If a feasibility study gives the go-ahead, the second unit will be designed to produce cellulosic ethanol along with the energy to operate the existing corn-based ethanol production.
In Benson, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company's goal is to use corn cobs and a mix of biomass sources to replace most of the natural gas. The intent is to add value to its farmers' operations, said Fynboh.
He said the company is mindful of the challenges facing biomass, and taking one cautious step at a time.
"You don't go into the biomass business,'' said Fynboh. "You grow into it.''