Ely making slow progress on biomass heating project

Some parts of Minnesota have a lot of wind to spin turbines. Others are burning with solar potential. But in Ely, in northern Minnesota, the local resource is trees. In terms of renewable energy, that means biomass.

The city of 3,500 people, surrounded by the Superior National Forest and beyond the reach of cheap natural gas, has been trying to build a state-of-the-art biomass heating system for years, especially since making renewable energy a city goal in 2010.

In the beginning, the plan was to provide centrally generated “district” heat and electricity to the community college, the public school, the hospital, city hall and potentially hundreds of homes. But at around $24 million, that project proved unwieldy and expensive, and the failure to land a Department of Energy grant made it impossible. Now, the city is aiming for a pared-back project that would cost just under $4 million and heat a handful of buildings including the school and hospital.

In Grand Marais, a few hours east of Ely, a similar biomass project has made more progress with the help of a county-wide sales tax, as MPR News’ Dan Kraker reports here and on All Things Considered tonight.  And other small communities have installed their own green-energy projects, often with the help of federal stimulus dollars, whether solar in Royalton or geothermal in Lac qui Parle County. For more on this nascent move toward community energy projects, see our Ground Level page called “Making Energy Local” here.

But Ely continues to struggle, fighting for dollars and outside support. Currently, the city is waiting hear if it will land a $150,000 grant via the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which makes funding recommendations to the Legislature for environmental projects. The grant would pay for legal, engineering and financial work.

“We submitted an application to LCCMR to continue the feasibility phase of the project,” said Harold Langowski, Ely’s city clerk and treasurer, noting that the project has drawn past funding from foundations, the state and other sources. “We’re trying to put together… the three entities that would be involved in the district heating project, the city, hospital and independent school district… The scope has been reduced down to something now we feel is fundable.”

The narrower vision and lack of measurable progress, despite prolonged effort and countless meetings, has led at least one diehard advocate to bow out of the process. “In my letter of resignation I said, ‘I am willing to do any task you think I could help with, but in the meantime, I need to circle the sun without a meeting,’” said Andy Hill, a general contractor who was on the biomass project committee for three years. “I need one complete orbit without a meeting.”

Hill believes wholeheartedly in renewable energy, energy conservation and the use of recycled materials. “I think in general, we take the wrong approach to our energy problem,” Hill said. “Conservation should trump everything else.” He lives off the grid with his wife, using solar power and wood heat, in a home he hand-built with recycled materials. “A third of our house was in the dump,” he said. “We take great pride in that.”

Andy Hill with his solar panels near Ely. (Photo by Anne Swenson, courtesy of the Ely Echo)

Yet he came to believe the process around Ely’s district heating system was bogged down. “It was too political,” Hill said. “We were wasting money on feasibility studies.”

He still thinks the heating project is a good idea. The trees regularly removed from the forest and private property to prevent fires, he said, could all go to biomass. “When they clear a road to put up a cabin or garden, they take the junk to the end of the driveway and burn it. Our numbers in Ely show we wouldn’t have to cut down a tree to heat, if we could gather what was burned in waste piles. We are flat missing the boat.”

Langowski remains optimistic that biomass heat will materialize at some point. “The city council feels there will be a biomass project in Ely,” he said. “We will continue to look for grant funds. If the LCCMR grant doesn’t pan out, we will switch gears and find another way.”