Minnesota forests provide opportunity for biomass thermal

By Chris Hanson | May 01, 2013

Forrest Boe, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry, said the state presents challenges and opportunities for thermal biomass utilization at the second annual Heating the Midwest Conference and Expo on April 25.

Boe said one of the greatest challenges currently facing forest managers not only in Minnesota, but nationally, is the restoration and maintenance of the forest ecosystems. He explained that severe weather swings caused by climate change are occurring more frequently and cause problems with drought, blow downs, insect infestations and invasive species.

Mill closures have also impacted the ability to utilize commercial harvesting as a management tool, he added. Low harvest levels and declining natural resource management budgets add to the challenge, Boe continued.

“But with those great challenges come great opportunities,” Boe said. With the low harvest levels, came larger supplies of biomass material. According to Boe, Minnesota did a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) in 1994 and found the upper level of sustainable harvest was 5.5 million cords. He added current harvest levels are roughly 2.6 million cords across all types of land ownership.

In addition to abundant resources, Boe said built in safeguard gives Minnesota an advantage for implementing responsible bioenergy practices. These safeguards include dual third-party certification, the first national biomass harvesting guidelines, and a master logger program that ensures practices are upheld on private lands. In a later interview, Boe said having the forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative demonstrates long-term sustainability of forest resources. “Having a third party come in and certify you are doing all the right things certainly helps with your credibility,” Boe said.

Minnesota communities and local harvesters also serve as a growing opportunity for the biomass industry. According to Boe, foresters from the Department of Natural Resources are already working with Minnesota communities located off the natural gas grid, such as Grand Marais, Ely and Bemidji, to explore thermal biomass options.

Boe represented during the opening session of the Heating the Midwest with Renewable Biomass Conference and Expo. The wood materials and manufacturing program at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute organized the meeting.