Cook County Local Energy Project biomass representatives meet with Grand Marais Public Utilities

On March 28, Paul Nelson and George Wilkes of the Cook County Local Energy Project (CCLEP) met with the Grand Marais Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to discuss the possibility of the PUC being the fiscal agent for a biomass district heating plant grant of $200,000-$250,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The grant requires a significant amount of work to have been done already.  Nelson said the biomass district heating project CCEP has been pursuing on behalf of the city of Grand Marais appears to be tailor-made for this grant, with all of the required background work already completed.

The PUC has agreed to be the owner of the proposed plant if it proves to be feasible.  CCLEP has been working through a series of steps to determine the project’s feasibility, but for this grant, a fiscal agent with a more significant financial history, such as the PUC, is required.

CCLEP has retained the services of FVB Energy Inc., which has estimated that a biomass plant, underground infrastructure, and hookups to the first customers would cost about $9 million. 

One unknown at this point is what is underneath the surface of the ground along the routes leading from the plant to the buildings it would heat.  The Cedar Grove Business Park is being considered as a location for the plant.  Finding out what is underneath the ground would help engineers make more specific constructions bids, and this is something the grant could be used for. 

PUC Commissioner and City Councilor Tim Kennedy said this information would put the city into a better position for making a decision about whether to keep moving ahead with the project.

The grant could also be used to help pay for the feasibility study and potential engineering costs. 

The USDA grant would require a 20 percent match, Nelson said, and the money that has been approved from the county’s 1 percent infrastructure and recreation sales tax could count as the match. 

If the city were awarded this grant, it would not be committing itself to build a biomass-fueled district heating plant. 

Nelson indicated they are being conservative in their estimates so that the project would present little financial risk.  They won’t recommend moving forward if customers don’t want it and if it is not affordable, he said. 

Some of the reasons for pursuing a biomass-fueled heating plant include improving the health of the forests in Cook County, boosting the local economy, and reducing pollution caused from transporting fossil fuels long distances.  The aspen in Cook County are old and rotting, Nelson said, a growing and unending problem according to the U.S. Forest Service.  Those involved in this project hope a biomass district heating plant could make use of this wood.

The PUC board unanimously approved a motion authorizing CCLEP and FVB to submit an application for the USDA grant for work related to pursuit of a district biomass heating plant and agreeing to be the fiscal agent for the grant.