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Energy grants boost Duluth efforts to use wood

Steam leaves the Duluth Steam plant in January 2006. Duluth Steam will receive $150,000 from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to add wood to the pulverized coal it uses to fire the boilers that heat much of the city’s downtown. (File / News Tribune)

A couple of state grants announced Monday will support Duluth-based efforts to open new markets for Northland forest products and simultaneously reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Duluth Steam will receive $150,000 from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to add wood to the pulverized coal it uses to fire the boilers that heat much of the city’s downtown. Plant Manager Jim Green expects the new system to cut the steam plant’s consumption of coal by about one-quarter, potentially eliminating the need to burn about 16,000 tons of coal per year.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute will receive $217,500 to work on a process that could turn low-value wood into a ready-to-use feedstock for the production of other advanced biofuels.

The two renewable energy projects in Duluth were among five in the state picked to receive NextGen Energy grants through the state’s Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation program Monday, following what Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson described as a competitive review.

“Although only five projects could be selected from the 35 submitted, it’s an encouraging sign to see so many Minnesota companies interested in the health of our environment. I’m glad to see our AGRI dollars in the NextGen Energy grant are funding projects that not only provide a vibrant economy today but a clean environment for our future,” he said in a written statement.

All  money awarded through the program must be matched by grant recipients.

Researchers in Duluth and Coleraine will partner with staff at Syngas Technologies of Elk River, Minn., to refine waste wood into a stable precursor that could one day be used to produce a fuel that would take the place of conventional petroleum-based diesel, said Donald Fosnacht, the NRRI’s director of applied Research and Technology Development.

The NRRI will be working with wood that has been broken down and heated to around

500 degrees as it moves through a column. Fosnacht said the process — called torrefaction — drives out moisture and light volatile compounds, yielding a material that is easy to grind and gasify in a pressurized and highly heated environment.

In the wake of recent struggles in the forest products industry, Fosnacht said the project is just one of many the NRRI has tackled.

“It’s part of our overall strategy to add value back to the wood resources we have here in northern Minnesota,” he said.

At the steam plant, Green said a consulting firm from Thunder Bay, Ontario, already has been retained to evaluate different potential sources of wood-based fuel. He said the plant’s boiler will require no major modifications to begin burning wood, but front-end systems for handling another type of fuel and possibly drying and/or grinding it on site will need to be considered.

Nevertheless, Green said he’s confident Duluth Steam will be ready to start adding wood to its fuel mix by the end of the year. He noted that a good number of potential suppliers already have emerged.

“Our whole deal will be trying to keep it local,” Green said. “We’d like to have more of a community-based energy system.”

As for cost, Green said he doesn’t expect the shift to wood fuels will drive up rates. If anything, Green predicts it could provide a sort of safety valve.

“It gives us some flexibility, so as prices fluctuate we can shift to the best fuel,” he said.

But Green expects the financial effects to be fairly negligible, saying:  “It would be relatively cost-neutral.”