Minnesota college converting to biomass

By Anna Simet | June 11, 2014

Via a boiler system upgrade and use of local wood fuel, Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, hopes serve as a case study for other heating districts of its size.

Over the past several years, the college and its partners, which include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Swedish Bioenergy Association, have been investigating using wood fuel for a number of reasons, said Bart Johnson, project manager. “There are a few reasons why we think that’s important, but one of the main ones it that we live in a region of the U.S. where the forest products industry has a history of being prevalent, but it is in a declining state.”

That has led to underutilization of the state’s forests, which was the initial catalyst for the project, according to Johnson. That and the fact that wood heat technologies have dramatically advanced in recent decades, and the school was already familiar with using wood fuel. “A lot of wood boiler equipment in the past was so user intensive,” he said, adding that an old, now-mothballed wood-fired boiler installed on campus in the 1970s required maintenance and checks several times per day. “If you’re not in the energy production or conversion business, you don’t want to spend that much time checking and working with your heating plant,” Johnson said. Our goal is to update it with more modern equipment that takes advantage of the technological changes that make the boilers much lower maintenance.”

The college currently uses natural gas as fuel in its 3.5-MW hot water district heating system, as the old wood boiler’s fuel efficiencies were no match for low natural gas prices. “We also have to use a very controlled chip—a paper quality chip that’s been screened and debarked—and it’s really expensive. [With the new system] we’ll get to a point where we can take fuel directly from the woods.”

Once the new boiler is installed, biomass will become the primary heating source on campus. “While natural gas is still cheap—and we have a pipeline that runs through our campus so we couldn’t possibly be any closer—taking biomass directly from the woods will still allow us to heat our campus more effectively,” Johnson said.

Minnesota also has a renewable portfolio standard of 20 percent renewables by 2020, and that objective is also a driver for the project. “We want to show that this is a way to meet these requirements,” Johnson said. And educational opportunities for students are an added benefit, as the college has existing forestry and power generation programs.

Now armed with a $112,000 LCCMR grant from the state and nearly $1 million in state bonds, a request for proposals for design and bid documents will be released within a month, Johnson said, with a completion goal of 2015. “It may be 2016 depending on the design process—some components may be sourced from overseas, and there are lead times required with that. Late spring or early next summer is optimistic, but we may be looking at the year after.”

Johnson adds that the economic impact of the project is notable. “When we burn natural gas, 95 cents of every dollar leaves the state—and country—and heads to Canada. Looking at utilizing biomass, those are truly local dollars. That’s the other part of the message we want to convey. We hope to be agents of change toward using woody biomass for a heat source.”