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Franklin, Minn., an unlikely biomass test kitchen

Kevin Kokesch, utilities supervisor for the city of Franklin, checks the bin on the hot water boilers that are fueled by renewable energy pellets. The Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers continues to experiment and test different recipes for renewable energy pellets. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

The Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers are striving to concoct the right recipe for rural economic development and energy independence.

Their test kitchen is the small Renville County community of Franklin, population 475.

A system designed to use fuel pellets produced from farm-grown biomass is heating City Hall, the fire hall and a city shop building.

''The heat is wonderful,'' City Administrator Wendy Pederson said.

"We're very, very happy with it so far.''

She spoke Wednesday to a gathering of people who had come to see the latest step toward building the region's agricultural-based, renewable energy industry.

The city had obtained $74,863 in grant funds to develop the biomass heating project and undertake energy conservation work in the three city buildings. Engineer Dan Reek of Rural Energy Connections, LLC in Eden Prairie, designed the system. It uses two hot water boilers to supply a steady flow of 190-degree water to heat the buildings.

The system was launched during the winter of 2010, and has now completed a full winter trial. It's projected to reduce heating costs for the city by up to 50 percent. It replaces LP and electric heating systems.

Last year, a recipe of corn stalks, sunflower hulls, edible bean hulls and corn screenings comprised the pelletized fuel supplied by Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers for the system, according to Keith Poier, president of the cooperative located in Priam.

The recipe wasn't the best, he conceded. The pellets packed lots of heat energy, but produced more ash and clinkers than desired.

Franklin turned to wood pellets as fuel for the heating system this winter.

Poier said Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers is continuing to experiment and test different recipes for its pellets.

"One of our main goals is that it helps the agricultural community,'' Poier said. Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers believes that pelletized fuel from agricultural residues -- and perhaps dedicated crops -- could eventually help heat homes and businesses.

Along with providing new revenue to farms, using locally produced biomass keeps money circulating in regional communities, Poier noted.

"It's what renewable energy can do for us,'' he said.

Densification -- or turning the biomass into pellets --costs anywhere from $32 to $45 a ton, according to Poier. He believes the densification is critical to the future of biomass. It offers storage and transportation advantages over bulk sources of biomass.

Densification also makes possible a consistent fuel that can be readily used in all types of burners, whether to heat homes or large buildings.

To produce its pellets, Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers obtained a grant from Xcel Energy to acquire a Kinetic Disintegration System from First American Scientific Corporation of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The technology reduces the energy required to produce pellets.

Poier said there is plenty of work ahead, but he is optimistic. Biomass cannot compete with today's price for natural gas, but it compares very favorably with other fuel sources ranging from electricity and propane to fuel oil.

The biomass industry could get its start by serving communities without natural gas service, such as Franklin. Eventually, Poier believes that pellet plants could be developed to collect agricultural materials within a 25-mile radius and keep our heating dollars -and jobs -- close to home.