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Area timber waste being used for biomass

Rather than burning the waste from logged land, there's a new alternative coming to Becker County.

The Becker County division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources took part in their first biomass sale earlier this year. Although not lucrative at this point, using the "non merchantable wood that can't be used at the sawmill or paper mill" to sell for alternative fuel will pick up in the future, DNR Forester Howard Mooney said.

Plants are "using different types of fuel for energy production, heat, ethanol products," he said. So the parts of trees such as bark, limbs, twigs and needles from pines are being chipped and sold to energy plants to burn as an alternative fuel, something the government is enforcing.

The governor's plan says by 2025, 25 percent of plants must use alternative energy to operate. And while this is new to this area, it's being utilized much more in the Twin Cities.

"Scrap wood or diseased trees can be brought in to the power plant," he said of the energy plant in the Cities.

It's not just forest leftovers either. Other sources include agricultural residue like corn stalks and straw -- or the bark left at sawmills as well.

Usually, he said, when land is logged and cleared, the limbs and branches that couldn't be used and sold are left on the ground to rot back into the earth.

"That's not a negative. It's not utilized, but not wasted either," he said.

There are also concerns of piles of wood waste being burned, which selling it would alleviate as well.

"We can re-utilize it instead of burning it," he added.

The problem for this area is a lack of market. Benson and Grand Rapids are the closest businesses purchasing biomass for fuel.

"We're on the fringe of it being cost effective to haul it that far and still make a profit," Mooney said.

"It's a very low value product at this time, and as such, (owners) sell it very cheap."

Current biomass prices in Minnesota average out to about $25 per green ton or $50 per dry ton. In this area though, it goes for about $1 per green ton, and the sale the DNR made in January went for 80 cents per green ton.

The timber sale site, located on Juggler Lake in northern Becker County, is about 120 miles from Grand Rapids. About 500 tons of biomass was taken from the site -- 20 semi loads at 25 tons each -- and sold to Minnesota Power in Grand Rapids.

"It depends on the price of other fuels," Mooney said, which determines buyers as well. The cheapest fuel is going to be the fuel of choice.

The reason for the DNR sale was to clear the land for replanting. They hosted two timber sales -- one for the logged, usable timber and one for the biomass.

"You want to have a reason to do it," Mooney said of the sale.

Although this was the first sale for the DNR, Mooney said, "White Earth is trying to promote the use of biomass but at this point, it's not a gold mine."

Several entities are joining together to host a biomass fuel workshop on Thursday, March 26, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the old Pine Point School in Ponsford.

The biomass workshop will cover topics such as woody biomass resources, native grasses for biomass energy, harvesting guidelines, marketing opportunities and more.

For more information on the workshop or to sign up for it, contact the White Earth Natural Resources Department at 218-573-3007.

While private landowners can sell their biomass also, Mooney stressed it's something that should be planned for in advance, after making sure it's feasible. There are only two operators in the area -- Park Rapids and Bagley -- that have the equipment to clear land for biomass.

"It's not by hand, but strictly by machine," he said. "They have to have a huge pile of material before operators will come in.

"What I'd like to see, if it's a big enough pile, is see it sold for biomass instead of burning it."

Mooney said the county also sells its biomass composed of leaves and branches people bring in when clearing yards and land. He said the county collects, then sells it for practically nothing.

"At least it gets used for good," he added.