Photo: The ceremonial “ribbon cutting” was replaced by tossing special wood chips into the wood energy system.
Biofuel is a hot topic in the Grand Rapids area lately. Only a few weeks ago the NRRI Coleraine Research Lab revealed its new compressed biofuel and on Wednesday, Oct. 18, ICC worked with Minnesota Power to host the Fifth Annual Bioenergy Day.
Bioenergy Day was comprised of a presentation from NRRI on utilizing woody biomass, a tour of Minnesota Power’s Rapids Energy Center, a presentation on Itasca’s woody biomass project and finally a tour and “ribbon cutting” of ICC’s woody biomass energy system.
With Northern Minnesota holding one of the largest naturally occurring wood baskets in the US and parts of the US actively trying to move away from coal (some more aggressively than others), research into renewable energy is becoming increasingly relevant. Almost more important than research though, is the ability for average citizens to learn about the outcomes of energy research first hand.
In Itasca County, the best and most readily accessible demonstration of efficient and productive biomass use is ICC’s revamped wood boiler. The old boiler sat idle due to resource cost and inefficiency but with a little bit of international financial help from the Swedish Bioenergy Association, Swedish Energy Agency and Skogforsk Swedish Forestry Research, and a lot of community support and hard work, ICC was able to improve the system and start taking advantage of Itasca County’s local wood basket.
“As an institution, our goal is the educational opportunities with our students,” said ICC Provost, Bart Johnson. “Behind every success, there is a story and the story behind our wood boiler is a student project where we had a group of people in the community want to see something happen.”
The wood boiler represents more than just an educational opportunity, it also brings jobs to the area and gives local lumber companies like Rajala Lumber a perfect outlet for their wood waste.
ICC’s new boiler can use much lower quality woody biomass than what would usually be required. This allows the system to utilize woody biomass that is wet or even frozen (within reason) and let’s suppliers ditch more of their lumber waste.
The boiler will heat 180,000 sq. ft. across ICC’s campus and is expected to last at least 20 years with yearly updates from Messersmith Manufacturing, the company that built the new system.
Something to keep in mind is that only 50 percent of the buildings on campus were built after 1980 which means that almost none of the buildings are built with energy efficient materials and yet, the boiler is still able to efficiently operate. A future upgrade is planned for each building to have meters installed that allow energy data to be collected for increased optimization and extra education opportunities.
The system is more than an energy resource though; it also incentivizes nearby lumber companies to partner with education and give back to local communities. It basically creates a cooperative environment between business, education, and energy.
Companies like Minnesota Power and Rajala Lumber are getting unprecedented exposure in regards to getting youth involved in the energy and lumber industries. Increased exposure means that areas that are built on natural resources can continue to thrive and grow.
Woody biomass and energy isn’t something that is talked about every day though, at least not yet. One of the primary reasons that wood energy is so scarce in the renewable energy market is because people are thoroughly afraid of deforestation. In recent years, lumber companies have become so responsible with their clearing methods that they are actually adding biomass to natural areas. This means that, especially in the Itasca area, woody biomass is the most accessible renewable energy by a long shot. Unfortunately, wood is not cheaper than natural gas (though it is close), however, using wood based fuels allows local energy companies and organizations to put money directly back into the local economy.
In the case of the NRRI solid biofuel, there is even an opportunity to bring money into the area from states that are aggressively trying to move away from non-renewable energy. In the case of ICC’s wood boiler, local businesses simply get to work together in moving towards clean energy. It seems Northern Minnesota and specifically Itasca County is on the forefront of renewable energy education and research and is working hard to make major local businesses a part of the process.