Opportunity in the Midwest

By Brian Brashaw | May 22, 2012

Does the age-old energy resource—wood and agricultural biomass—have an exciting future?  “Absolutely,” remarked Kenneth Smith, president and CEO of District Energy in St. Paul, Minn., during his keynote presentation at the first Heating the Midwest Conference and Expo, held in Eau Claire, Wis., in April. 

Even a partial switch to biomass heating can result in economic growth, energy independence and environmental stewardship for the Midwest, according to biomass economist William Strauss, president of FutureMetrics. “Biomass already plays an important role in heating homes and businesses, with future potential to create new economic opportunities and energy security for the Midwest,”  said Strauss, noting that propane, electricity and fuel oil currently fill more than 30 percent of all Midwestern heating needs. “A switch of 20 percent away from propane and fuel oil would create over 60,000 jobs,” he explained during a roundtable discussion.

More than 170 people attended the conference, which included a preconference tour aimed at building a Midwest vision for heating with renewable biomass. Chris Wiberg, conference co-chair and manager of the Biomass Energy Laboratory, was especially proud of the significant participation for a first-time conference. “The 170-plus conference attendees actively participated in building a vision for this renewable energy source, embracing its potential economic benefits for residents and businesses,” he said.  “Our goal was to start the momentum, and we succeeded.”

Important topics were addressed that focused on understanding the potential for biomass thermal and combined-heat-and-power systems. The Midwest Biomass Inventory Assessment was released as a snapshot of the current biomass availability relative to energy consumption in seven Midwest states.  “Biomass can play a role in offering affordable, renewable energy options that consumers are looking for,” said Becky Philipp, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute team leader for the assessment.  “This inventory can serve as a platform to begin the development of biomass-related projects.” 

Case study examples of home, residential, small commercial, school districts, institutional and large projects were presented by various speakers to help attendees understand modern combustion technologies, installation strategies, and the positive economic paybacks. Presenters also noted that new cost-effective and sustainable installations of biomass heating are planned at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wis., and the Chillicothe, Ohio, Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Heating with biomass has a wide range of potential benefits for the Midwest, including new jobs and increased uses of urban wood, logging residues, and agricultural grasses.  Speakers also pointed out that biomass utilization improves the potential for forest and grassland management, reduces carbon dioxide emissions over fossil fuels and connects energy use to homegrown resources.

The preconference tour emphasized the real-world applications of thermal biomass, showcasing several local schools that heat with wood chips, residues and pellets.  Monti Hallberg, superintendent of the Barron, Wis., school system said they have a proven, cost-effective track record of heating with biomass at the high school since 1981, and recently extended wood heating and cooling to the middle school. Attendees also toured Indeck Energy pellet plant.

The sold-out indoor and outdoor expo hall offered a wide range of heating appliances, along with biomass processing equipment suppliers and affiliated testing, research, and business development organizations. On-site vendors were pleased with the attendance and traffic for a first-time conference, and said they are looking forward to participating in 2013.

The final morning speakers, Hans Kordik, counselor of agriculture for the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Charlie Niebling, chairman of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council and general manager of New England Wood Pellet, provided valuable evidence that the use of biomass for thermal applications has been a tremendous success in Austria, and is growing significantly in the Northeastern U.S. Wiberg closed the conference by encouraging all attendees to become involved in Heating the Midwest by advocating for thermal biomass and participating in the Heating the Midwest Steering Committee or Action Teams.

For more information on Heating the Midwest, visit www.heatingthemidwest.org.

Author: Brian Brashaw
Director, Wood Materials and Manufacturing Program
University of Minnesota Duluth