Wood Heat Stakeholders Gather, Talk Opportunities and Urgency at Heating the Midwest

(Article by Tim Portz, Forge Content)

Heating the Midwest, an annual conversation and roundtable about growing the role of wood heat in the Upper Midwest was held last week at the Black Bear Convention Center in Carlton, Minnesota.

Kicking off the Heating the Midwest conference. (L to R: Brian Brashaw, Program Manager, Forest Products Laboratory; Tim Portz, Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute; Gregg Mast, Executive Director, Clean Energy Economy MN)

This year’s conversation carried an increased sense of urgency with the news of the closure of three large biomass power plants in Minnesota on everyone’s minds. Benson Power in western Minnesota and Laurentian Energy Authority’s two plants located in Hibbing and Virginia will be shutdown, and with their closure the demand for nearly 500,000 green tons of woody biomass in the area will disappear.

Set against that backdrop, this year’s Heating the Midwest agenda worked to highlight wood biomass thermal deployments that work despite an economic environment of historically low fossil fuel prices while also looking toward projects with a realistic chance at gaining traction and stepping into the void created by the Benson and Laurentian Energy closures.

“The forest products industry is absolutely vital to the rural economies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan,” said Brian Brashaw, a longtime Heating the Midwest steering committee member and Program Manager for the USDA Forest Products Laboratory. “A healthy forest products sector adds value to woody biomass of all sorts and when demand for lower value material goes away, it reverberates throughout the supply chain.  Healthy forests and industry need markets for all harvest products.”

Brashaw’s comments were supported on Thursday morning when Scott Dane, the Executive Director of the Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota took the stage. For Dane and his membership, these plant closures will significantly reduce the available work, straining a vital piece of the forest products supply chain.

Conference participants on tour. Sawmill residues seen here are being used for biomass heating.

For an audience hungry for some good news, a highlight of the conference was a joint presentation delivered by Terry Nanti the General Manager at Duluth Energy Systems and Lee Torrens, President of Enysn Fuels, Inc. The presentation walked the audience through the decision making process that Duluth Energy Systems used to make a decision to transition the city-owned steam plant to a biomass-based feedstock. As part of a broader modernization effort, the city is planning to begin burning Enysn’s renewable fuel oil (RFO) product. While the first volumes of RFO burned at Duluth Energy will be manufactured at Ensyn Fuel’s refinery in Canada, Torrens delighted the audience by expressing his continued interest in Minnesota as a potential site for Ensyn’s first U.S.-based production site.

“Our region is blessed with abundant supplies of renewable biomass from our fields and forests,” said Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. “Identifying market applications for these materials is critical for retaining and expanding supply chain jobs and spurring rural economic development.” Throughout the event, Brashaw and other longtime Heating the Midwest steering committee members asked the audience to join the conversation about what Heating the Midwest should be dedicating its time and energy to. A common theme from attendees was that while difficult, it was imperative to take the message of modern wood heat to a new audience of city planners, county officials, state policy makers and architects and engineers.

The conference also featured a biomass heating tour in Northeast Minnesota, making important connections between resource supply from harvesting and manufacturing residues and modern, efficient and clean heating systems.  Recently installed biomass heating installations at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa were featured.