Ever wonder what biomass is, and why all the fuss? Well, energy from biomass is fast becoming the new oil, and there’s a rush to get in on the action, and the funding.
A push to develop renewable, domestic energy sources, backed by government subsidies and tax incentives, has fueled a nationwide boom in the biomass industry. There’s also a lot of interest in biomass energy at the local level.
“We’re in the process of really taking a real comprehensive look at biomass energy throughout the county, trying to figure out what the resource is and what the best technologies are for making energy out of it.”
That’s George Wilkes, co-chair of the Cook County Local Energy Project, or CCLEP, a non-profit citizen’s action group formed to promote local energy efficiency and renewable energy development. They’re working with local government agencies and others to look at ways to use locally harvested woody biomass to generate energy for community use.
“It could be small-scale units that would heat individual buildings, all the way up to a large scale district heating facility, for the city or town centers, like Grand Marais,” says Wilkes. “There’s a few different ways to do it, one really neat one is called a cogeneration facility. You burn the biomass, very efficiently, you scrub the exhaust, very well, so it’s very clean, and you make heat out of that and you pump that around in a fluid. And so you serve a community of buildings with hot water heat and you also make electricity at the same time, and that’s very efficient.”
Funding for biomass projects is coming from a variety of federal and state agencies, and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) is currently considering funding a study that would focus on Cook County and Ely, looking at the feasibility and sustainability of local, forest-derived biomass energy. One of the areas the study would address is how much woody biomass is available locally and whether removing it affects nutrient levels in the soil and forest health. Patty Johnson is a fuels expert with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). She’s been looking into that, and says she doesn’t see a problem.
“We have some different models that will estimate the amount of biomass, based on data we have from the forest. And at this point, just by looking at that model, it looks like there’s plenty of biomass out there to support a biomass plant.”
Johnson says that useable biomass is already being removed from the forest, as slash from logging operations and debris from fuels reduction treatments, and that it’s currently being piled and burned.
“So in terms of what’s available out there, we wouldn’t really even need to go into more than what we do right now. There’s so much by-products from the treatments we do, that that’s what we would use for a biomass facility.”
Biomass energy is already being utilized in Cook County. Last year, Birch Grove Community Center installed a biomass system to heat the building. Jessa Wallendal was the director of the Birch Grove Foundation at the time:
“We received a grant from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to install a wood pellet boiler, which would carry 90% of our heat load in the winter. Which was a program put together by the state, looking to support public buildings, specifically school buildings and community centers that wanted to convert to some kind of locally produced biomass.”
Wallendal says the system worked well, but cost savings weren’t as great as they’d hoped.
“This year, the cost of fuel oil had dropped, so wood pellets and fuel oil, because of our really expensive delivery costs, were almost on par. We still saved, we estimated, probably in the neighborhood of about a thousand dollars using wood pellets and fuel oil combined this year, as opposed to just straight fuel oil.”
Another project that local biomass supporters are looking at is a wood pellet production plant. Surplus woody biomass would be processed into pellet form, for use in boilers like the one at Birch Grove. Wallendal says having access to locally produced wood pellets would save a lot on delivery costs.
“It would be huge. I mean the cost savings would be dramatic. In the range, I would imagine, we would be saving a good 50% off of what it would cost to heat with fuel oil.”
There is widespread support for biomass energy development as an alternative to fossil fuels, and, as in the case of Birch Grove Community Center, there can be substantial energy cost savings associated with it. But on a national level, the biomass industry is coming under increasing scrutiny, and the jury is still out on how green, clean, or renewable biomass power really is. Grassroots, community-based opposition has halted large biomass projects in Florida and Illinois because of concerns about air quality, and the state of Massachusetts enacted a moratorium on new permits in December of last year, until an environmental review could be completed. But the growing opposition to biomass power is being directed mainly at the large, electricity-generating power plants, and there are key differences between those projects and the small-scale, community-based use of biomass now being considered for Cook County.