Is biomass energy in Cook County's future?

Howard Hedstrom, of Hedstrom Lumber Company in Grand Marais, offers input during the biomass public meeting, December 9.
Howard Hedstrom, of Hedstrom Lumber Company in Grand Marais, offers input during the biomass public meeting, December 9.

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Around 20 people came to the County Courthouse in Grand Marais on a stormy, snowy evening earlier this month to talk about biomass energy.  The December 9 meeting was organized by the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP), a local citizen’s group advocating sustainable energy development in the county.  The group has obtained funding to study the pros and cons of burning wood from local forests to generate energy.  George Wilkes is co-chair of CCLEP.  He and members of his group think it’s time to get away from our dependence on fossil fuels.

“The reason we think bio-energy is a fit here, or a good fit here is because we have lots of trees and it’s very cold,” says Wilkes. “We also think we have quite a bit of underutilized biomass available in the county.  The best example of that is the biomass that’s cleared for fire mitigation activities.  That biomass is currently, a lot of it, is hauled to gravel pits around the county, accumulated and then burned.  Biomass energy would be turning those trees and brush either into heat, electricity, or heat and electricity, or even in some cases you can turn it into fuel.  To some extent we will investigate all of these, but we believe that heat alone, and heat and power, are the two technologies and processes that would apply best here in Cook County.”

While there’s general agreement that Cook County has plenty of surplus wood available, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the implications of removing it from the forest and burning it.  George Wilkes:

“We need to look at how the harvest will affect forest ecology, air pollution, ash disposal, and how we are going to make this work economically," says Wilkes.  "And that’s part of why we’re here tonight, to give the public a chance to weigh in on this and express your concerns.”

Several audience members did have concerns, including Jeff Kern of Grand Marais.

“I want to be sure that when we talk about forestry management, that we’re not simply talking about how to produce more from the forest, that we’re talking about the forest as an ecosystem that’s a functioning ecosystem, and that we maintain the processes that make the functioning ecosystem function over the long haul.  I want to make sure that’s not missed,” says Kern.

Local loggers Kevin and Brian Berglund wonder if there will be enough demand for biomass to make it profitable and worth their while.

“It’s great, burning wood, but who’s going to bring it out?  It’s not free wood, it can’t be free wood.  If they’re thinking cheap, I’m not going to go, just because I’ve got the wood, and bring it to them.  If it’s big enough, then it’s worthwhile.  But if it’s a small operation, maybe one or two buildings that it’s benefitting, I’ve got a wood stove that’ll do that.”

Howard Hedstrom, of Hedstom Lumber Company in Grand Marais agrees on the importance of scale.

“It has to be big enough to incent somebody to put the investment in to do it,” says Hedstrom.  “There will be a lot of study around that and how to really make that work, I think.”

The biomass study is being coordinated by Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis-based think tank, in partnership with CCLEP.  The Cook County Board of Commissioners supports CCLEP’s efforts and voted in October to contribute $113,500 from the county’s timber management fund towards the study.

For more information about the Cook County biomass feasibility study, or to submit questions, comments, or suggestions, visit the project website at dovetailinc.org.  More information is also available on the CCLEP website at cookcountylep.org, or from local study coordinator Gary Atwood at 387-2852.


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