Report on Phase I of Cook County Biomass Energy Study Presented

Contact:  Kathryn Fernholz,, (612) 333-0430
Cheryl Miller,, (651) 653-8133
George Wilkes,, (218) 387-2137
Gary Atwood,, (218) 387-2852


Report on Phase I of Cook County Biomass Energy Study Presented


(Grand Marais, MN)  A report on the findings from phase I of the Cook County Biomass Feasibility Project was presented to the Cook County Commissioners during a work session Tuesday, September 20, at the  Cook County Courthouse, Grand Marais. Community residents were also present, and the open forum encouraged by the commissioners led to a productive exchange of ideas and opinions. The afternoon session was followed in the evening by a similar presentation to the public at large.


The report, titled “Forest Biomass Heating and Electricity in Cook County, MN” has been prepared for the Cook County Board of Commissioners and is the product of nearly ten months of effort by a study team from Dovetail Partners, Inc., the University of Minnesota, LHB Inc., and with oversight from the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP). It presents the results of the first phase of a two-phase study that explores the options, opportunities and implications of using forest biomass as an energy source for the heating of homes, businesses and public buildings in Cook County with the added possibility of generating electricity as a by-product.


Dennis Becker - University of Minnesota, Dept of Forest Resources was the principal presenter, with contributions from Katie Fernholz of Dovetail Partners, Inc; Cheryl Miller, the project manager; and Chuck Hartley, an engineer with LHB, Inc, Duluth.


The first phase of the study and subject of this report focuses on three things:  1) the availability of biomass for energy production; 2) the technologies and system configurations which may be suited to the range of potential applications around Cook County; and 3) a financial evaluation of these systems relative to fossil fuel alternatives.


The report offers numerous findings, including:


·      Sufficient biomass is currently generated from county timber harvest residues and Firewise treatments to fuel district heating in Grand Marais or at facilities around the county.


·      Biomass fuel suitable for smaller systems are cordwood, clean chips produced from bolewood, and pellets.


·      Annual fuel and operating expenses for biomass heating systems are lower than for conventional fossil fuel systems, but would require upfront costs to convert to these fuels.


·      Small systems for residential heating, medium-sized systems suitable to a large resort, and larger systems capable of heating business and public buildings in Grand Marais have payback periods between 5 - 11 years.


·       A large system providing combined heat and electrical power (CHP) for Grand Marais costs considerably more than heating only.


Comments from community members expressed a real concern over the impact a greater use of biomass for energy would have on the health of the forest.


Lonnie Dupre, Grand Marais resident and local contractor, shared his observations from traveling in Finland, a county drawing heavily on its forests for biomass.


“I hiked through their forests and there’s nothing left on the ground,” said Dupre. “There’s no wildlife and nothing left to return nutrients to the soil.”


Becker acknowledged that practices in Finland and other Scandinavian countries represent an intensive approach to harvesting, and one which is prohibited in the U.S. Current Minnesota harvesting guidelines require that a minimum of 33% of slash and logging debris remain on the site.


“In the Cook County study, we’ve gone beyond that” said Becker, “and assumed 50% remains.”


Even at this level, he added, the study indicates that current harvest levels would supply sufficient biomass to fire the system configurations that could use the slash and logging debris as fuel.


Concern was also expressed about the burning of biomass and the release of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Both Becker and Miller were quick to agree that carbon storage and sequestration are major considerations when talking about biomass energy.


As Miller explained, the second phase of the project will take a detailed look at the short- and long-term environmental, economic and social implications of biomass energy in Cook County.  The impact on forest ecology and the production of greenhouse gases are just two of the factors being examined.


Phase II of the project is being funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The Trust Fund is a permanent fund constitutionally established by the citizens of Minnesota to assist in the protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.


During this phase, an expanded analysis will be conducted of long-term feasibility, impacts, and management needs for community-scale and other small bioenergy applications.  Ely, Minnesota, a community already moving forward with a biomass energy project, is participating in this effort along with Cook County. Following presentation of this information to the study participants, the decision-making tools used to assess these types of projects will be shared with communities, land managers, policymakers, investors, and others interested in the long-term prospects and viability of locally produced bioenergy.


Both Miller and Fernholz emphasized the need for community participation in the phase II assessment of impacts and trade-offs.


The report executive summary, presentation, and full report are available online at and will also be available at