Pellets become pathway for biomass company

By Jerry W. Kram
The increasing popularity of pellet-fed fireplaces and furnaces has created an opportunity for a Minnesota-based company.

Sunrise Agra Fuels LLC markets fuel pellets made from crop residues, according to company President Bob Ryan. The company started with the intent to use local resources. "We started asking questions about whether there was an opportunity to use ag residue as a fuel source," Ryan said. "We pelletize fuel in a conventional pellet die for two different uses. We have a residential grade for corn-type stoves, and we are also going to make a commercial grade in the new plant."

In its first year, the company sold about 600 tons of pellets, which were manufactured by contractors. Quality concerns interrupted the company's supply during its first heating season, but Ryan said it showed there was an enthusiastic demand for the product. "There was an extraordinary market," Ryan said. "I still get calls on a daily basis. We distributed our product no more than 150 miles from where it was manufactured, and we could have easily accomplished 10,000 tons of sales last year."

The company decided to build a plant in Bird Island, Minn., to avoid the quality problems with its suppliers. "We have been contracting with some feed mills in the area," Ryan said. "We stopped production with them this last heating season because they couldn't handle the quality we needed to have." He added that the feed mills had problems using low-density biomass, which led to an inconsistent product.

The plant will be operated as a separate entity from Sunrise Agra Fuels and will be a producer-owned cooperative called Prairie Agra Fuels. The plant received its permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in mid-June. Construction is set to begin in the fourth quarter of 2007 and should be completed by the end of the year. The capacity of the plant will be 70,000 tons per year. It will use corn stover and soybean straw from a 30-mile radius as its primary feedstocks. The design/builder is Marcus Construction in Prinsberg, Minn.

Another company is organizing in North Dakota to produce a similar product. NSB Valhalla in Minot, N.D., was awarded a $53,500 grant from the states Agricultural Product Utilization Commission to refine its technology for producing fuel pellets from agricultural waste for use in residential, commercial and agricultural applications.