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Turning one town's mess into another town's energy

MONTEVIDEO -- One town's mess is another town's clean electricity, thanks to Riverdale Environmental Services, Inc.

The Granite Falls-based company is busy this week in Montevideo grinding barn-sized piles of trees downed by the July 31 windstorm into chips that it will haul to Benson.

There, the wood chips will be mixed with turkey manure and used to produce electricity at the Fibrominn plant.

The company has similar-sized piles of trees in neighboring towns -- including Dawson, Madison, Milan and Appleton -- waiting to be chipped and removed, all of them the result of the same storm.

The irony that a windstorm that had knocked out power to thousands is now helping to keep the lights on is not lost on Seth Streblow. He and his brother Joshua are the owners of the company.

For most of its 10-year history, the company has been doing a lot of what he calls "storm chasing.'' Equipped with large forest industry equipment, the company helps remove the trees and limbs that fall in major storms. "We come in and take care of the problem,'' Seth Streblow said.

Three years ago, the company spent six months on the Louisiana coast helping cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

These days, it finds plenty of work within a roughly 300-mile radius of its home.

Yet the biggest change is this: Ever since February, every sliver of wood and chips are hauled to customers to use as biomass fuel. The Fibrominn plant in Benson is one customer. It mixes more than 500,000 tons of poultry litter and biomass -- mainly wood chips -- to produce enough electricity to power 40,000 homes, according to the company.

While the Benson plant has received a lot of attention, Streblow said there is a growing demand for biomass all across the state. His company's customers include a plant in St. Paul which uses wood waste for a district heating system and to produce electricity, as well as a paper mill in Sartell that uses wood in its fuel mix to power operations.

There are plenty of other biomass users as well, everything from an ethanol plant in Little Falls to the Laurentian Energy plants using leftover logging wood to produce electricity in Virginia and Hibbing.

The growing demand for biomass across the state is being felt on the supply side, according to Streblow. Until recently, biomass customers had their pick. The land of 10,000 lakes easily had as many piles of waste wood scattered about, most of it the byproducts of either forest industry or manufacturing operations.

Some of the piles date back a few decades, and much of it is dry and easily put to use as biomass fuel, he said.

Those piles are being whittled away, and biomass users are becoming more willing to use the wet or green biomass that comes from trees felled by storms, according to Streblow.

Prices for the biomass vary by quality, ranging from a few dollars per ton for the wet stuff to as much as $20, he said.

It's not just trees felled by Mother Nature that provide the biomass. A major part of Riverdale Environmental Services work involves clearing trees to make room for development. Recent projects have ranged from clearing land for a new big box store in St. Cloud to removing a three-mile corridor of trees in North Dakota. The North Dakota project involved clearing a path for an electrical transmission line needed to carry electricity generated by new wind farms, Streblow said.

His company is also seeing a growing demand to remove woody vegetation from conservation lands in the state. It contracts with agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners and organizations to clear trees that have invaded prairie and wetlands. Much of that work can only be done in winter, when the grounds are frozen and can handle the large equipment needed.

In previous years, Streblow said much of the biomass cleared from lands would have been left to decompose or burn in the open. Today, a larger share of it is being harvested as biomass energy.

Riverdale Environmental Services moves roughly 20,000 tons of biomass a year, according to Streblow. In Montevideo, he expects to fill 50 semitrailers for trips to Benson, with each one carrying 23 tons of wood chips.

Along with producing carbon-neutral electricity, the emerging biomass industry in the state creates new jobs. Streblow said his company has grown to include 10 full-time people working year around.