Wood-powered Morris businessesby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
You've probably heard about some of the major efforts in our region to use biomass for energy. Power plants on the Iron Range burn waste wood to fire steam generators. There are plans to burn wood chips and corn stalks to power several ethanol plants. Officials with the University of Minnesota at Morris plan to build a biomass power plant to feed much of their campus electricity needs within three years. But not all biomass projects are industrial sized, some of them are on a small scale.
Morris, Minn. — Craig Beyer makes a living trimming and cutting down trees. As his saw buzzes and chips fly, Beyer carves carves up an old, dead tree. He's run his business, Craig's Tree Service, for 10 years now. In that time he's seen a lot of the wood he's cut go to waste.
"It's all in landfills and burned up in brush piles," Beyer says.
But three months ago Beyer started piling up some of that wood, disease-free oak and ash mostly, behind his other business; a laundromat and car wash in Morris.
Those businesses rely on hot water. So Beyer is using the scrap wood as fuel for his water heaters.
"We're cutting the trees down, we have to dispose of them. It makes perfect sense to put them to some good use after the fact," Beyer says.
Beyer's wife Jessica feeds the scrap wood into the wood boiler.
"You put the logs in and turn on the fan and shut the door and off you go," she says.
The boiler looks like a small shed with a smoke stack sticking out the top. It's the same kind of system some people use to heat their homes. Once or twice a day, the Beyers throw a few logs in boiler's stove. They catch fire quickly and heat up a tank of water to around 150 degrees.
That hot water flows through pipes into the building where it ends up either washing someone's car or washing someone's clothes. Normally the water would be heated with natural gas. Jessica Beyer says take one look at their gas bill, which is usually between $1,000 to $1,500 a month, and you understand why they're using an alternative fuel source.
The Beyers say it's too early to know exactly how much money they'll save heating their water with wood, they still use natural gas for a backup. But their first gas bill on the new system was only $500 and they hope it dips even lower in coming months.
"It's very cool," says Mike Bull.
The Beyer's use of biomass is impressive to Bull who's assistant commissioner for renewable energy at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Bull says the Beyers have captured, on a small scale, the true spirit of biomass energy.
"These folks are using a resource that would otherwise be landfilled and actually turning it into something positive and useful and able to hedge their energy costs as a result. It's good for our rural economies. It promotes energy independence even on a small scale," he says.
Bull says there are a lot of plans for big biomass projects in Minnesota. But he says there's a place for smaller uses of biomass too, like burning waste wood to heat a school or a store.
Technology is working to make the prospect of burning waste less harmful to the environment. Outdoor wood boilers like the one the Beyer's use have been banned in some cities across the country and in the state of Washington because of the smoke they produce. Wood boiler manufacturers are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop cleaner wood burners.
Craig Beyer understands the concern about pollution but wants people to remember that this is wood that someday would be set ablaze in a landfill.
"If it's going to be burned anyway, it sure might as well go to good use," he says.
In addition Craig and Jessica Beyer say the Minnesota-based company that built their boiler is working on a new model. AquaTherm claims that it will burn not only the wood but the gasses created too, like big industrial biomass burners, resulting in less pollution.
First the technology needs to be tested and approved by the EPA. But within a few months the Beyers hope they'll get the very first updated burner when it rolls off the assembly line.
- Morning Edition, 06/25/2007, 7:20 a.m.