When most of us think about the Iron Range of Minnesota, we think about taconite mining and heavy industry. However, there is a story of renewable energy that has been unfolding right in the heart of the Iron Range since 2006 that some may have heard, but certainly deserves to be told again. As the community coordinator in Northeast Minnesota for our organization, I had the privilege to meet with Greg French, General Manager of Virginia Public Utilities, to learn about the Laurentian Energy Authority and Virginia’s use of biomass to power their public utilities.
The Laurentian Energy Authority (LEA) is the managing partner of a joint venture between Virginia, MN and Hibbing, MN to incorporate the use of biomass to power the public utilities of both cities. The LEA also has a power purchase agreement (PPA) to sell 35 megawatts of biomass-produced power to Xcel Energy. In addition to displacing the use of dirty coal as a power source, the Mesabi Daily News reported in 2006:
“Goals of the biomass project have included stabilizing steam heat costs for 20 years, maintaining local power plants and steam systems, helping customers avoid costs of converting to another heating source, preserving utility jobs, creating 60-100 new jobs, selling renewable energy at a profit and putting money into the local economy with fuel purchases.”
Before I took the tour of the plant in Virginia, Greg French sat down with me and highlighted some of the accomplishments and challenges since converting two of their boilers to biomass in 2006. Currently, the Virginia and Hibbing plants are displacing the use of 150,000 tons of coal per year. That’s a huge win for the environment! In addition, Virginia’s two wood-burning boilers are the only two boilers in Minnesota burning raw wood, which means they’re using the debris from the logging industry that gets left on the ground during the logging process, as opposed to farmed, pre-dried and processed wood fuel. Greg explained that using raw wood debris makes sense from an environmental resources perspective, but has also presented challenges.
The challenge of using raw wood debris as fuel revolves around moisture content of the wood, especially in the spring and fall seasons. Higher moisture content decreases the efficiency of how the wood burns and increases emissions following the burn. Greg and his team are currently in the process of installing gas stabilizing burners at the top of the boilers where conveyers feed the wood into the system. The stabilizing burners will provide enough heat and forced air to dry the wood chips before they hit the burners at the bottom of the boiler, increasing burn efficiency and heat production from the wood and decreasing emissions at the end of the process.
The initial start-up cost for the biomass project was $80 million, which was funded through bonding, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) and personal loans. In 2013, legislation was passed establishing parity in price for Xcel Energy’s costs to purchase power from the LEA and similar biomass projects in St. Paul and Benson, which increased payments to the LEA. The legislation decreased the costs of operation for the LEA by $1.4 million per year and that savings gets passed on to utility customers in Virginia and Hibbing.
Greg French’s team has also attempted to mix biomass with coal for their remaining coal-burning boilers in an attempt to further decrease their fossil fuel use. What they found was that the biomass naturally separated from the coal while in the conveyor system that leads to the boilers due to difference in size, weight and composition of the raw materials, which prevented the biomass from being burned. Greg is currently working with researchers at the Natural Resources Research Institute as they are in the process of developing a wood briquette that can be effectively mixed with coal.
After learning the ins and outs of how the LEA was formed and functions, Greg took me on a tour of the plant, beginning with the conveyor system that brings the raw materials to the boilers. He highlighted the challenges with conveyance, stating that if the conveyor system malfunctions, they have a very short window of time to fix it to avoid an emergency. We followed the conveyor into the building where Greg showed me the boiler system. I had an opportunity to look into the firebox of one of the boilers and could see exactly how the wood is delivered into the boiler and how it burns when it hits the bottom. It was impressive…and very hot!
After climbing and descending several stories of metal stairs throughout the plant (which seemed impressively clean), I certainly had an appreciation for the complexities of the biomass project and a much better understanding of the engineering accomplishments and challenges. After touring the Virginia plant, I can better conceptualize the implementation of biomass power production with a better understanding of the benefits and costs. I have a much deeper appreciation for the innovators who are forging the way toward replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy resources…right in the heart of the Iron Range of Minnesota.
I offer many thanks to Greg French for his time and enthusiasm in telling me Virginia’s story of renewable energy. If you would like more information about the use of biomass and how Virginia and the Laurentian Energy Authority are working toward a more sustainable future, please contact Greg or his staff at the Virginia Public Utilities offices at (218) 748-7540.