By Michael A. Kallok
Five years ago, the University of Minnesota, Morris relied primarily on fossil fuels for its campus energy. Today the university, with 1,700 students and 400 employees living and working on a 164-acre campus with 32 buildings, is a national model for a community-scale renewable-energy platform. This year the university aims to achieve its ambitious goal of carbon neutrality and energy self-sufficiency by harnessing power from wind and local biomass. Additionally, the biomass facility will provide a hub for green energy research and a training center for careers in the green energy industry.
Economic and social considerations. In the early 2000s, natural gas price volatility was eating away at the University of Minnesota, Morris reserve fund. Students were interested in reducing carbon emissions and making the campus more self-sufficient, so Lowell Rasmussen, UMM's vice chancellor for finance and facilities, began to assess the region's alternative energy resources.
The Morris campus was founded in 1887 as a working farm and boarding school for American Indian children. It became the West Central School of Agriculture in 1910, and in 1960 the four-year University of Minnesota, Morris was established to offer a liberal arts education to rural students. UMM's biomass gasification demonstration and research facility, which will become operational in 2010, has reconnected the school with its roots in agriculture and land stewardship. Situated amid the farm fields of western Minnesota, UMM has access to an estimated 700,000 tons of agricultural residue (everything but the grain) produced by the region's farmers each year. The university's biomass gasification facility will use roughly 9,000 tons of corn stover annually to offset 80 percent of natural gas currently used to heat its buildings. By gasifying this local, renewable biomass, the facility will produce steam for all of the campus heating and cooling needs. Steam will also power a turbine that is expected to generate enough electricity to operate the biomass facility.
Biomass is not burned directly; rather, it is heated in an oxygen-deprived chamber. The resulting chemical reaction produces ash, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen. Burning this mix of gasses, known as producer gas, is cleaner and more efficient than simply burning biomass. Although the process still releases carbon into the atmosphere, it's considered carbon-neutral because it is a one-to-one ratio of carbon absorbed during the growing season versus the release of carbon stored underground in fossil fuels.
Biomass gasification technology has been around since the 1800s and is widely used in Europe; however, much remains to be learned about the practical application of gasification as it pertains to different fuels and their byproducts. UMM and its partners plan to investigate the pros and cons of producing biomass energy with agricultural residue or dedicated energy crops, such as native prairie grasses. The facility will enable researchers to examine the best ways to harvest, prepare, and store readily available local biomass feedstocks. Researchers also hope to discover how to gasify feedstocks so that ash byproduct, or biochar, can be put back into farm soils to improve soil productivity.
In May 2009 UMM offered its first biomass gasification class. Students from UMM and Minnesota West Community Technical College and displaced workers from around the region learned about the science, economics, and practical applications of biomass gasification—including hands-on experience with small-scale gasifiers.
UMM plans to use the facility as a classroom for students in environmental studies and science. Long term, UMM also intends to use the gasification facility to extend knowledge into K-12 classrooms and to offer one-week courses geared toward entrepreneurial industrial audiences.
Currently, more than half of UMM's electricity needs are met by a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine. Since 2005 the turbine has generated roughly 5.6 million kilowatt hours of power each year. UMM plans to install two additional turbines in 2010. Altogether, the three turbines will produce more electricity than the university consumes. The university will sell surplus power to local utilities and use carbon credits from surplus power to offset carbon emitted by staff and faculty air travel and road travel using its fleet of vehicles (primarily gas/electric hybrid).