Construction of the NOvA detector facility, funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has created business opportunities for members of the local community in northern Minnesota.
Recently it also created an opportunity to fuel renewable energy in the state.
This month a local logging company cleared trees from about 20 acres of the site to make way for the facilities and 3 ½ miles of widened road. Rather than wasting that wood, the company will sell it as a source of renewable energy to two Minnesota power plants.
Imhof Logging did the work for subcontractor Hoover Construction free of charge in exchange for the wood.
“We drove by to see if they’d started working and asked if they needed someone to clear the right-of-way,” said Michael Imhof, who co-owns Imhof Logging with his brother. “We started the next day.”
Imhof spends most of the year gathering lumber to sell to the Boise Cascade paper mill in International Falls, Minn. Usually he has filled his quota by late spring, and his business goes idle during the summer months.
In January, Imhof found a new opportunity: selling the limbs and tops of harvested trees to be burned as biomass fuel.
“It’s really cleaning up what you would be wasting otherwise,” Imhof said.
Before now, Imhof was only able to sell roundwood, the skinned trunks of trees. Loggers usually scatter the parts that are left behind on the ground and leave them to biodegrade. The decaying waste can help the soil quality, but loggers can remove 60 to 75 percent without harming the soil, according to the Minnesota Forest Resources Council.
Because of Minnesota legislation that has increased the use of renewable energy in the state, two century-old plants in Hibbing and Virginia, Minn., have converted from coal-only to hybrid coal- and wood-burning plants.
Burning wood emits 4.5 times less sulfur dioxide and six times less nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. Using wood can also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
The Hibbing and Virginia plants have reduced the amount of coal they burn by about 100,000 tons per year from 250,000 to 150,000 tons since they started burning biomass as well.
Converting the plant has retained 70 jobs at each of the two facilities and will create an estimated 60 new jobs in the logging and trucking industry, said Terry Leoni, general manager of Virginia Public Utility and treasurer of Laurentian Energy Authority.
“This is viewed as a $21 billion economic stimulus to the area over 20 years,” Leoni said.
The plants also give the area a boost by buying locally.
In 2007, about three-fifths of Minnesota’s electricity came from coal-fired plants, according to the Energy Information Administration. Most of that coal comes in by rail from Montana and Wyoming.
The plants in Hibbing and Virginia, on the other hand, buy wood scraps from loggers within a 75-mile radius in Minnesota.
Imhof collected about 1,700 tons of lumber from the NOvA site this month. He has signed a contract to provide the two plants 20,000 tons of wood per year.
“So that’s quite a lot,” he said.