A study is getting underway in Cook County that will look at using woody biomass to generate energy for local use. The study kicks off with a public meeting on Thursday, December 9.
The term “biomass” has been in the news a lot recently. A push to develop renewable, domestic energy sources, backed by government subsidies and tax incentives, has fueled a nationwide boom in the biomass industry over the last decade. There’s also considerable interest in biomass energy on a local level.
George Wilkes is co-chair of the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP).
“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,” says Wilkes.
CCLEP has been actively seeking funding to research the potential for community-based biomass energy production in Cook County, and in October, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved a $113,500 contribution from the county’s timber fund to pay for a feasibility study. One of the issues the study will look at in depth is how much woody biomass is available locally and whether removing it from the forest will negatively affect nutrient levels in the soil and forest health.
Patty Johnson is a fuels expert with the U.S. Forest Service. She’s been looking into that question, and says she doesn’t see a problem.
“We have some different models that will estimate the amount of biomass, based on some different data we have from the forest,” says Johnson. “And at this point, just by looking at that model, it looks like there’s plenty of biomass that’s 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.
“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 byproducts from the treatments we do, that that’s what we would use for a biomass facility. Now, in terms of effects, there’s a multitude of different studies that have been done on effects of biomass. Because we’re focusing on the byproducts of current activities, we don’t expect there to be any more effects than what there is right now from the activities we do.”
There are many different forms of what is considered biomass. Locally, it could include waste wood, right-of-way clearing and tree removals, materials generated by the FireWise program and wildfire mitigation, and slash from commercial timber harvesting. Just as there are many forms of biomass, there are also many different technologies that make use of it. George Wilkes of CCLEP:
“There are some really clean ways to burn biomass, and it would be very different from the attempts that were done a couple of decades ago with burning wood chips, which were rather inefficient and produced some smoke problems,” says Wilkes. “There’s a few different ways to do it, one really neat one is called a cogeneration facility, where you burn the biomass, you scrub the exhaust, very well, so that 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. So it really could look like a lot of things. 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, for instance, is the biggest one, that would burn quite a bit of biomass and then circulate the heat throughout the town in the way of hot water. I think the technologies have advanced a lot in the last couple of decades.”
There will be a public informational meeting about the biomass study at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 9th, at the County Courthouse in Grand Marais. The project is being led by Dovetail Partners, a Minnesota-based non-profit that provides information about the impacts and trade-offs of environmental decisions, including land use and policy alternatives. Additional partners include researchers from the University of Minnesota and members of the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP). For more information, contact local project coordinator Gary Atwood at 387-2852 or log on to the project website at dovetailinc.org/cookcounty