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How can Minnesota implement efficient local energy that runs on wood?

Minnesota may be able to replace aging power plants with efficient combined heat and power systems that run almost entirely on local, sustainably harvested wood.

If sustainably harvested wood can be used to fuel a combined heat and power system, you can utilize a local resource while cutting waste from your energy bill.

As we shift our energy system away from a few very large power plants and toward more localized and efficient clean energy resources, one opportunity has yet to truly take off in Minnesota: combined heat and power. Combined heat and power (CHP) takes much of the heat that is wasted during traditional power generation and uses it to heat a building or a water system. This efficiency creates big time energy and financial savings – so why hasn’t it been more widely embraced?

Will Nissen

Despite our leadership on energy policy more broadly, Minnesota hasn’t yet developed a robust public policy to encourage and implement efficient CHP systems economy-wide. Fresh Energy is working to change that.

Using local resources while cutting waste

One reason CHP makes sense for Minnesota is our local, natural resources – more specifically, our wood. If sustainably harvested wood can be used to fuel a combined heat and power system, you can utilize a local resource while cutting waste from your energy bill. To dive a little deeper, we brought together two leading experts in combined heat and power and forestry to see what that might look like.

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Ken Smith is the head of Ever-Green Energy and St. Paul District Heating and Cooling, a successful CHP project that’s utilized tree trimmings and other residual wood products for decades. The key point, from Smith’s perspective, lies in creating systems that use local resources and use them more efficiently.

“Nationwide, we waste about 60 percent of our energy,” Smith said. “We’re a little better in Minnesota, but we’re still wasting about 58 percent of the energy we generate because it’s simply given off as heat when the energy is generated.” A closed loop system, however, can utilize much of that heat for other uses, such as heating an entire district of buildings.

Katie Fernholz is the head of Dovetail Partners and a forestry expert. When it comes to CHP, Fernholz wants to ensure we’re valuing our forests for the long term by creating market demand for sustainably harvested wood: “If the world needs renewable energy, I want forests to play a part in that. We can find the right fuel sources and the right scenarios to use wood for sustainable combined heat and power.”

Impact on forests

Fernholz hopes that creating a market demand for wood could help reverse a growing trend of forests being sold off, clear cut, and used for farming, in particular potato farming across north central Minnesota. The question comes down to how those forests are managed and what carbon impacts come from burning the wood they produce. Essentially, the carbon impact of burning one type of tree can be much different from another.

As we move forward, policies we pursue should take those elements into consideration and target the solution that provides the greatest carbon benefit. With the right policies in place, communities across Minnesota may be able to replace aging power plants with efficient combined heat and power systems that run almost entirely on local, sustainably harvested wood – simultaneously cutting waste, lowering emissions, and supporting our forests. 

Will Nissen is a senior policy associate at Fresh Energy.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)