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Biomass energy is again on radar for MnVAP

PRIAM -- The Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers are ready to take another try at developing a biomass energy product.

The farmer-owned cooperative in Priam has obtained the permits needed from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to begin testing a new technology that offers promise in producing biomass pellets for the renewable energy market, according to Keith Poier, MnVAP chair.

This September, the cooperative will begin feeding biomass into a KDS or Kinetic Disintegration System it acquired from First American Scientific Corporation of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The patented technology reduces the energy required to produce fuel pellets by 20 to 25 percent. The kinetic energy employed to pulverize the raw material literally drives much of the moisture out of it, while the heat generated also helps evaporate much of the remainder.

The cooperative wants to use the technology to produce fuel pellets that are very dense, consistent in quality and provide the storage and transportation attributes needed, he said.

It will also research the feasibility of producing a powder-like fuel still dense enough to be economically transported by truck. There is new technology that can use this type of biomass like natural gas.

The cooperative obtained a $1 million grant in late 2007 from Xcel Energy to research the potential of producing biomass fuel with the technology. To obtain the needed permits, MNVAP had to demonstrate that the system can be operated without causing dust emission problems for its neighbors.

MnVAP is a leading producer of high-protein alfalfa pellets for livestock markets across the country. It was organized in 1994 with the goal of turning alfalfa into a combination energy and feed crop. The stems of the alfalfa were to be separated and used as fuel to produce ''green'' electricity. The alfalfa leaves would continue to be pelletized and sold as a high protein livestock feed.

MnVAP's major partner in the venture - Enron- pulled out. The U.S. Department of Energy ended its support, and the project was abandoned.

The lessons learned are shaping this new attempt, but the cooperative's 140 share holders remain committed to their original goals. Poier said they want to develop new, profitable crops for farmers that add diversity to our landscape and create economic opportunities in our rural communities.

Poier said this attempt will focus first on producing a biomass fuel that is tailored towards the markets for heating homes, businesses and schools. Schools in the area, including KMS, are exploring biomass heating systems and could help create a market for locally-raised fuels, he noted.

There may also be opportunities for producing biomass fuels to help power boilers at local industrial plants or smaller-scale electric generation plants. The Willmar Municipal Utilities is exploring the use of corn cobs as a fuel for its coal-fired plant.

The demand for renewable fuels is expected to grow, but the costs associated with harvesting, processing and transporting a large volume fuel present an economic challenge.

MnVAP's challenge is to identify the types of biomass materials that work best, said Poier. It has already found that one alternative crop highly touted as a possible biomass fuel doesn't grow well here.

Using plant residues as fuel, such as corn stover and soybean straw, are strong possibilities. But Poier said all options are on the table. A blend of residues and dedicated crop may ultimately produce the most economically viable product.

He believes that the final product will likely include a dedicated fuel crop as the major component, mainly because consistency of supply and quality are so critical in the marketplace.

Tom Cherveny

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

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