Electricity from biomass

Up North utilities are giving more of their attention to renewable energy


In downtown L’Anse in the Upper Peninsula, a dormant 50-year-old coal plant smokestack is operating again. Instead of coal, the L’Anse Warden Electric Co. plant creates electricity and steam by burning biomass, such as old railroad ties, recycled tires and sawmill waste.

The biomass plant is the first such plant to open in Michigan since the state passed a requirement for renewable energy last fall.

Next month, its owners will start paying farmers to plant hybrid trees that eventually will become fuel.

The Warden plant, which opened in November but will become fully operational this week, produces enough energy to power 20,000 homes and provides steam to a nearby factory that makes ceiling tiles.

Its owners hope to convert three more coal plants in the region to biomass — in White Pine, Marquette and Escanaba.

It’s part of a move by small companies and utilities to burn wood instead of coal, and it’s becoming a booming business in northern Michigan.

  • Traverse City Light & Power wants to build as many as five biomass plants.
  • Wolverine Power Cooperative in Cadillac is considering using farmed hybrid trees, along with coal, as fuel for its planned Rogers City electric plant.
  • Boston-based Mascoma Corp. plans a commercial plant in Kinross to turn agricultural and wood waste into ethanol.
  • Renewafuel LLC, a subsidiary of the Cleveland Cliffs mining company, announced plans last year to build a plant in Marquette to turn wood waste into biomass cubes that can be burned.

    State legislators adopted a requirement last year that utilities get 10% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Traverse City Light & Power plans to switch from 99% of its electricity from coal to 30% from renewables by 2020, said manager Ed Rice.

    Traxys North America, a New York City mining and energy company, bought the old J.H. Warden Generating Station in L’Anse three years ago to convert it to biomass.

    "We wanted to diversify and we wanted to do renewable energy," said General Manager Mike Reid.

    Everything that’s burned in the biomass boiler comes from a 100-mile radius and otherwise would have ended up in landfills. The plant emits about half the pollutants it did during its coal-burning days. It’s also providing jobs for loggers and others who find and deliver wood, Reid said.

    Traxys is leasing acreage from local farmers to plant fast-growing trees. In June, they’ll be planting hybrid shrub willows developed by scientists at New York University.

    Scientists from Michigan State and Michigan Tech Universities have been working on other hybrids that could be raised as biomass, including poplars.

    Traxys will plant 500 acres this year and increase that to 10,000 acres, Reid said.

    Contact TINA LAM: 313-222-6421 or tlam@freepress.com

    Additional Facts

    Some things that can be burned as biomass

  • Fast-growing trees: Michigan State University is growing hybrid poplars, larches and aspens in the Upper Peninsula. These fast-growing trees can be raised as crops on abandoned agricultural land and harvested in eight to 10 years.

  • Hybrid shrub willows: Another biofuel crop now being grown in the northeast United States. Traxys is planting these on farmlands in the UP starting in June and plans to harvest them about every four years.

  • Grasses: Reed canary grass, a nuisance plant in the UP, and switchgrass, a tall perennial grass, have high energy content and can be turned into pellets. They can be harvested more quickly than trees and don’t need fertilizing or spraying.

  • Sundries: Old railroad ties, papermill waste, sawmill residue, shredded tires, dead trees or tree limbs, yard waste, sawdust, bark, wood chips, construction debris, wood pallets.

    Tina Lam

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