Renewable energy projects get $3 million boost from state

By Carol Stender

WILLIAMS, Minn. — Eight renewable energy projects will receive a combined $3 million in state grants from the Next Generation Energy Board.

The projects include perennial energy crop research at Central Lakes College Ag Center in Staples and a Williams grass seed company’s biomass gasification project. The matching grants were awarded to cooperatives, companies, ethanol plants and universities.

Northern Excellence Seed is a small firm with big energy savings plans made possible by a $200,000 Next Generation energy Board grant.


The company will install a first-of-its-kind small-scale biomass gasification system. Screenings from the company’s grass seed conditioning and packing process will fuel the gasifier, said Northern Excellence Seed general manager Brent Benike. Electrical power produced by the gasifier will be sold to MinnKota Power based in Grand Forks.

Northern Excellence save $40,000 a year in electrical bills plus the $10,000 to $15,000 it paid for screenings disposal to the local landfill, said Benike.

The system could be operational in February, he said.

Northern Excellence Seed is a wholesaler of packaged Kentucky bluegrass, timothy and perennial ryegrass. The packages are marketed and shipped doestically and overseas. The company sought ways to reduce costs and economically dispose of the screenings.

"We thought, ‘Why not make use of it and make power out of it,’" he said.

Three years ago the company worked with the Agriculture Utilization Research Institute and the energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks to study the screenings’ gas quality. The results showed screenings are better than wood chips, he said.

"That spurred everything else on," Benike said.

The company received a conservation innovation grant from the USDA in June 2007. It covered less than half of the project cost. The company has cash outlay in the project, but the Next Generation grant will help bridge the costs for the last part of the gasifier installation.


Northern Excellence’s gasifier is a demonstration project that will study how different types of straw and residue will burn in the system.

"This isn’t about Northern Excellence," he said. "I get more questions about it from people in the region, the state and across the nation. I am getting calls form people in Oregon, Indiana and Illinois. They’ve heard about our project. If we can demonstrate this and get this to work, we could have hundreds of these small gasifiers up and down the roads. This is one small part of the pie."

Next Generation awarded $220,000 for the Rick Neuvirth family’s anaerobic digester project. The digester will process hog manure from the Elkton area farm’s gestation, farrowing, nursery and finishing barns — about 1.7 million gallons a year — to make biogas or methane. The methane will provide electricity to the farm and replace natural gas.

Rick’s son, Tim, got the idea for the digester from a University of Wisconsin-River Falls alternative energy shortcourse. Tim graduated with a business degree from the university and, with his father and brother, Brian, studied the project’s feasibility for the farm.

Although there is a large capital investment for the project, the farm will meet its energy needs with the digester, Tim said.

Construction will start in spring. Phase 3 Renewables based in Ohio is working on the project.

Central Minnesota Ethanol Partnership in Little Falls will receive $910,000 to complete Phase 2 of its feasibility study. The partnership is a joint venture between the Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative, SunOpta BioProcess and Bell Independent Power Corporation. The three are considering building the state’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. The cellulosic ethanol plant would be co-located with the ethanol partnership’s corn-based plant.

The partnership completed its first phase of the study and said "things looked good," according to Central Minnesota Ethanol general manager Kerry Nixon. The second phase of the feasibility study includes more economic studies. The plant would take 16 months to 18 months to construct and could be operational in two years.


"We appreciate the state of Minnesota for their support," Nixon said. "The Next Gen grant shows the solidarity the state has for projects like this."

The cellulosic plant would use wood as it’s ethanol source. Between 48 to 52 percent of the moisture from the green wood will be captured in fermentation and would be used in the ethanol process.

Central Lakes College’s Ag Center will receive $100,000 to study five perennial energy crops.

The Ag Center’s director Bob Schafer heads the effort. Schafer is a former area vo-ag teacher and worked five years in the bio-fuel industry before returning to Staples earlier this year . Before he took over the center’s leadership from outgoing Norm Krause, Schafer talked to farmers and area organizations about farming and research needs. Many are interested in renewable energy but are unsure what crops or plants would be the best fit for any future venture.

"We have such a diversity of soil types between dry ground and swamp grasses," Schafer said.

Five perennials will be planted including switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, intermediate wheatgrass, cold strain Miscanthus and survivor false indigo. A separate stand-alone Camelina plot will be grown on the Ag Center property. Other plots will be grown on producer-cooperative land.

The Next Generation grant is a one-year offering and the energy grass plots will be a five-year study, Schafer said. The Center will use the funds to purchase seed and will seek additional funding for the project’s duration.

Other projects receiving Next Generation grants include:


• Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson. The cooperative will receive $700,000 for new technology that will use farm or woodland biomass to power the plant. The biomass will replace up to 90 percent of the co-ops natural gas needs. The technology will also allow the facility to eventually transition form corn-based ethanol production to cellulosic ethanol production.

• Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers in Raymond. The company was awarded $400,000 in Next Generation grants for pelletizing biomass materials. Pelletized biomass will be easier to store and transport.

•The University of Minnesota Department of Forestry in St. Paul. The U of M was awarded $100,000 and will study the sustainability of the state’s 16 million acres of forests.

•The University of Minnesota-Morris. UMM was awarded $50,000. The college has installed a biomass gasifier that will serve as the campus’ heating plant and help reduce energy costs. The project will lead to the development of a contract with a biomass producer and establish a model for biomass production.

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