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Willmar MUC's power plant corncob test burn grabs the attention of the Minnesota Polution Control Agency

WILLMAR -- The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is interested in the results of a test burn of corncobs to produce electricity at the Willmar Municipal Utilities' coal-fired power plant.

"They made the comment that they are interested in how this turns out because they see this as a possible viable alternative (fuel) to recommend to other operators of similar-size boilers,'' said Bruce Gomm, Willmar Utilities general manager.

Gomm said the comment was not necessarily intended to pertain just to boilers in utility power plants, but to similar-size boilers in industrial plants.

"Ours is a relatively small boiler, so it's more common actually in industrial facilities, but many are out there in industrial applications,'' Gomm said.

"As the push for renewable fuels moves forward, they're seeing this as an opportunity to establish baselines of different parameters they're looking for,'' he said.

MPCA staff members made the comment during a discussion with Willmar about its application for an air emissions permit, which the utility needs to test burn the 450 tons of cobs harvested this fall from area corn fields and stored on a runway at the old airport.

The utility is proposing the test burn to determine if cobs will help the utility comply with a state mandate that requires all utilities to obtain at least 25 percent of energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.

It's all part of state and national efforts to produce more electricity from renewable sources such as biofuel and wind.

"That is a big part of it, and another part of it is the (Municipal Utilities) Commission's desire in general to explore all the options that are out there and hopefully be a leader in coming up with alternative energy options with this biofuel,'' he said.

The utility will receive engineering support from PCi Management and Consulting Company of Schaumburg, Ill., leading up to and including the test burn. A contract with PCi not to exceed $58,000 was approved by the commission this week.

"As we move forward with getting closer and closer to doing the test burn, they're assisting us on the technical side,'' he said.

The utility has enough corn cobs for a month-long burn if the cobs are burned at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent of coal burned in the plant.

What is needed now is the air permit.

"We're working with them right now and we're hoping that we'll have a modified air permit by sometime in February,'' he said. "We want to be prepared for it so we can do it as quickly as possible, but at the same time until we know for sure that we can do everything we want to do, we can't get too far head of ourselves.''

For the test burn, the utility is expecting to use a farm-style chopper-blower to feed the ground cobs into the back of the boiler, said Gomm.

"We've talked to some of the machinery dealers and that equipment is pretty readily available,'' he said.

To permanently burn cobs, the utility will need more sophisticated equipment to weigh, meter and deliver the cobs separate from the coal into the boiler.

"We had experience trying to mix biofuel with our coal in the past and had pretty poor luck with it,'' said Gomm. "That's why we've been working diligently on an alternative process and that's why we're looking at a completely separate system to feed the biofuels into the boiler.''

In related business, the commission approved a contract with PCi not to exceed $30,000 for engineering support in developing new power plant emission control systems.

In other business, Gomm reported the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the utility $1,800 in early December for safety violations related to injuries suffered by lineman who came into contact with a 7,200-volt power line this past summer.

The lineman was hospitalized for two days and has not returned to work, said Gomm. OSHA cited the utility for deficiencies in safety areas pertaining to the accident, and Gomm said the utility has made changes to address those areas.

"We feel very fortunate that he only sustained injuries, that it was not a fatality, but we definitely we feel bad that he had sustained an injury and has complications,'' said Gomm. "We're hoping the best for him and we're doing everything we can to support him.''