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Office of Energy Security announces Renewable Energy Grant recipients

April 28, 2008

Office of Energy Security announces Renewable Energy Grant recipients

For Immediate Release: April 28, 2008

Projects funded in 10 focus areas total $2.1 million.

(St. Paul, MN…) The Minnesota Department of Commerce Office of Energy Security today awarded ten grants totaling $2.1 million for renewable energy projects that will help meet the goals of Governor Pawlenty's Next Generation Energy Initiative.  The grants will fund projects dealing with biomass, ethanol production, wind and solar energy.

The Office of Energy Security received requests to fund 37 renewable energy projects. The $2.1 million 2008 program budget allowed for funding one project in each of 10 focus areas based on the project's priorities. The extremely competitive grant process demonstrated the depth and ability of organizations engaged in the state's renewable energy industry.

"Americanizing our energy sources begins with homegrown ideas," Governor Tim Pawlenty said. "These Minnesota projects represent the next steps in developing a cleaner, better, and more secure energy future."

The grants will fund Next Generation Energy projects that will promote the development of cellulosic ethanol and advanced biomass energy technologies in the state. In addition to the renewable energy, many of the grantees will focus on the economic viability of new technology and how it can be used for large scale operations.

The projects will also provide data for the optimal installation of small wind, solar and biogas microenergy projects.  This performance data can be used to maximize the benefits of the Governor's Local Renewable Energy Initiative that will provide $20 million for long-term, low-interest loans to support microenergy installations in Minnesota homes, farms and businesses. The initiative is currently under consideration by the Minnesota Legislature.

In order to meet state policy goals for renewable energy, the projects focus on the application and evaluation of existing or relatively near term opportunities to specifically enhance the performance of Minnesota's renewable energy industry.

Project descriptions for each of the ten focus areas follow.

Focus Area:  Increase efficiency of ethanol or biodiesel production
Project:  Membrane-Solvent Extraction for Cellulosic Ethanol Production - 3M

Fermentation of corn-based mash generates about 12% ethanol in today's plants, before it is distilled into pure ethanol. The distillation step is one of the largest energy and water use steps in the fuel-grade ethanol production process. 3M is piloting use of its new membrane-solvent extraction process with a corn-based ethanol industry leader, and results show its process can increase ethanol concentration from the common 12% for corn-based ethanol to 70% prior to distillation. This increase in ethanol concentration is resulting in savings up to 60% of the energy and 40% of the cooling water commonly needed for distillation. This project will evaluate if the technology is transferable to the production of cellulosic ethanol. One of the key barriers to commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol is the low concentration of ethanol from fermentation (about 5%, around one-third produced from corn). Increasing the percentage of this ethanol prior to the distillation step is key to the economics of cellulosic ethanol. This project enables 3M to work with the University of Minnesota Biotechnology Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL) to quantify if the technology can significantly increase the ethanol concentration prior to distillation. If preliminary expectations are confirmed, the process is expected to accelerate near-term commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol production.  Grant amount $295,872.

Focus Area: Increase use of renewable energy by industrial processes
Project:  Pipeline quality, renewable methane for vegetable processing industry -
Seneca Foods; Montgomery, MN

The high cost of energy and organic waste disposal are two of the most significant threats to Minnesota's vegetable processing industry. The industry has over 3,000 farmers involved in production under contract; contributes over $700 million to the rural Minnesota economy, and employs over 5,000 people. This project will demonstrate and document an economical means to replace use of fossil fuel by converting vegetable processing waste into renewable biomethane. This will decrease net greenhouse gas emissions and provide for long-term process heating fuel price stability. Seneca Foods has invested in and installed a unique anaerobic digester system which is producing biogas suitable for firing boilers. This project will clean the biogas to usable biomethane so that it can replace a significant portion of natural gas currently used at the facility. Once successful, results of the project will be promoted to describe the anaerobic digester and show how the gas clean up process could be replicated by other vegetable processing facilities throughout Minnesota. Grant amount: $300,000  

Focus Area: Modular ethanol production
Project:  Commercialization of Modular Ethanol Production Systems - Easy Energy Systems; Welcome, MN

Rural economic vitality is largely dependant upon a community's ability to maintain local ownership and production of value-added products. Manufactured modular ethanol production systems can reduce capital expense, minimize hauling distance of feedstock and maximize sales of locally produced value-added product to accomplish that need. Easy Energy Systems (an affiliate of Easy Automation, Inc.) has developed a fully functional pilot unit that is a fully self contained, fully automatic ethanol production system. This modular unit currently uses about 2.7 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, as opposed to the industry average of about 4 gallons, and produces ethanol at a yield of 3 gallons per bushel of corn compared to the industry average of 2.7. The primary goals of this grant are to further reduce water use, increase yield, and move the technology to full commercialization and production. A portion of the grant will also develop and test a cellulosic module that can be added on to the base system. A cellulosic-capable system can be placed close to the sources of cellulosic material - greatly reducing both the cost and energy required to transport the material; providing for additional community-based value added product and sales.
Grant amount: $300,000

Focus Area: Renewable Methanol for biodiesel production
Project:  Biodiesel byproducts to renewable methanol - Rational BioEnergy; Eden Prairie, MN
Methanol is used in the production of biodiesel. For every 1,000 lbs of biodiesel produced, a typical biodiesel plant consumes 100 lbs of methanol and generates 100 lbs of crude glycerin. The methanol is made from fossil fuel and is imported into the state. Renewable methanol made from the crude glycerin, a biodiesel byproduct, would reduce net greenhouse gas emissions and provide for long-term crude glycerin market and price stability for the biodiesel industry. The primary outcomes of this project are to demonstrate glycerin-to-methanol production steps, create a sample of methanol produced from glycerin, perform an economic analysis of the process, and confirm parameters for cost effective commercialization. To help assure maximum value, the project includes investigation of glycerin-to-methanol both as a stand-alone process and also in the context of a broader multi-feedstock, multi-product process. If preliminary findings are verified, Rational BioEnergy plans to begin work on a full-scale production system incorporating this technology.
Grant amount: $297,675

Focus Area: Anaerobic digestion; Front End Engineering and Design
Project:  Swine Manure to Pipeline Quality Natural Gas - ECOCORP with Christensen Farms, Sleepy Eye, MN
Using anaerobic digesters for dairy manure biogas production and using that renewable fuel to produce electricity is a frequent practice in the nation, and using it to replace a high-value heating and transportation fuel is becoming more common. Use of swine manure for the same purposes is much less frequent, but is increasing. Biogas can replace propane or natural gas for farm operations, or be upgraded to pipeline quality natural gas and fed into the existing natural gas distribution system. This project will complete an in-depth feasibility study for use of swine manure, complete with: siting, feedstock procurement plan, market assessment, partial design engineering, preliminary permitting, and a financial and business plan. With parameters for successful swine manure anaerobic digester operations established, results will be extrapolated to the population of qualifying Minnesota swine facilities so that a realistic assessment of opportunity for the industry, and Christensen Farms, can be made. Grant amount: $100,000.

Focus Area: Gasification syngas clean-up
Project:  Syngas clean-up for low and high pressure biomass gasification systems - Gradient Technology, Elk River, MN

Numerous biomass gasification systems are available to supply thermal energy or syngas. However, without extensive gas purification and compression, the syngas produced is not suitable for use as pipe-line quality biomethane, or to produce value-added renewable fuels. To address this barrier related to improving the cost-effectiveness of biomass gasification in the state, this project will rely on commercially proven syngas clean-up systems used by the petroleum and chemical industries, and identify which are preferred for both low-pressure and high-pressure biomass gasifiers. The project will determine economics for both types of gasifiers, and confirm chemical composition of resulting syngas.  In addition, the project will also determine the economic viability of producing liquid fuels from biomass via gasification technology, and the costs of retrofitting low-pressure gasification systems to produce fuels compared to high-pressure gasification systems. Grant amount: $300,000

Focus Area: Plasma Arc Biomass Gasification
Project:  Economics & Emissions of Plasma Arc Gasification of Corn Cob & Wood Chips - Phoenix Solutions; Hutchinson, MN

Plasma arc gasification has been successfully used for many years as a hazardous waste treatment technology that uses high electrical energy and high temperature to reduce waste primarily into elemental gas and a glass-like slag. Advances have reportedly been made by the plasma arc industry to moderate the electrical energy input and plasma temperature so that biomass feedstocks can be converted to relatively clean syngas while reducing emissions common with main stream, biomass gasification systems. This project will use Phoenix Solutions advanced plasma technology pilot system to evaluate how a range of changes in the core subsystems (furnace, plasma, feed prep, and emission control) affect electricity consumption,  syngas composition, air emissions and economic feasibility using corn cobs and wood chips as feedstock. If preliminary findings are confirmed in the project, documentation will show that the technology can produce synthetic gas (syngas) from renewables that is cost competitive to commercial natural gas.  This will enable the company to produce and market the equipment; providing another effective means to produce renewable syngas from common Minnesota biomass. Grant amount: $150,000

Focus Area: Corn Cob Collection for Biofuel
Project:  Evaluating Field-to-Facility Corn Cob Biomass Energy Systems - Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company; Benson, MN
The current use of corn as the primary feedstock for ethanol production allows for near term use of corn cobs for a source of process heating fuel for ethanol plants. Evaluation of equipment used to collect cobs from fields during harvesting operations is needed to establish the potential for cobs to serve as a viable fuel source for process heating needs. The project will use two commercially available cob collection systems to harvest at least 5,000 acres. Evaluation will include comprehensive use and cost comparisons of the systems, cob storage, transport and utilization in two biomass gasifiers; one at the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative and the other at the University of Minnesota, Morris. In addition to these measurements, a "Corn Cob Biomass Energy" outreach packet for farmers including a video and "how to" guidelines will be produced.  If expectations of the integrated system are confirmed, the project will enable a near-term and cost-effective method to replace use of fossil fuels with renewable biomass in a wide variety of Minnesota facilities. Grant amount: $150,000 

Focus Area: Residential Wind Power
Project:  Residential Wind Power Study and Evaluation - Minnesota State University, Mankato

The rapid expansion in public interest regarding residential scale wind systems, and the need to optimize investment in them, calls for improved education about their installation, maintenance and operation as well as a comprehensive evaluation of available systems. This project will help assure that the public has access to impartial information, and that installers and service providers have access to consistent training regarding small wind systems. This project will involve the purchase, installation, testing and operation of four commercially available, residential scale, wind-powered electric generation systems, and develop a comprehensive data collection system to provide real-world long-term operational performance comparisons. The information from the installation and on-going operation of these systems will be integrated into training documents to benefit future users of the equipment and serve as guidance for the increased use of residential wind systems in the state. Grant amount: $ 145,800.

Focus Area: Solar Thermal
Project:  Performance Analysis of Solar Thermal Walls in the Twin Cities Area - Minnesota State University Mankato

Use of solar thermal wall systems as a passive means to supply heat for buildings is reportedly a near term option to achieve cost-effective reductions of fossil fuel use and GHG emissions. The opportunity for cost-effective use of such walls in Minnesota is not certain. To address this uncertainty, this project will evaluate the thermal performance of existing solar walls on four buildings in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Measurements including solar irradiance, indoor and outdoor temperature, and heat-produced energy gains will be collected for one year. Thermal performance of the solar walls will be measured, analyzed, and modeled for use in alterative building designs. The difference in consumption of fossil fuel energy of the buildings will be determined and compared to similar buildings without solar walls.
Grant amount $ 59,164