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Tilting toward turbines

The University of Minnesota, Morris will add new wind and biomass power

By Deane Morrison

Morris turbine, sundog
The wind turbine in Morris, shown here with a bright sundog, supplies half the electricity for the University of Minnesota, Morris.

From M, spring 2008

A lone sentinel on the windswept plain of western Minnesota, the 367-foot turbine hums as its spinning blades generate electricity for the University's Morris campus. But it won't be lonely for long. Morris has received authorization from the IRS to issue three Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) to build a second wind turbine, to add an electricity-generating steam turbine at the new biomass heating facility for the campus, and to purchase a third wind turbine to be shared with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The move puts Morris on track to reach its goal of energy self-sufficiency by 2010. The campus is integrating a mix of energy technologies into a single system with built-in flexibility, not only to supply its own needs but to demonstrate how renewable energy will likely be delivered in the future. "I don't know of anybody else, any other college or university, doing this on site," says Lowell Rasmussen, vice chancellor for finance and facilities at Morris.

Fertilizer from wind

Aside from the CREB-funded projects, some of the campus's wind energy will also be used for a unique pilot project by the University and several public and private partners. The energy will be used to turn nitrogen from the air into ammonia, an important fertilizer. As envisioned, the technology would be installed as a series of small systems to supply farms.

"A relatively small plant could supply enough ammonia for 400,000 to 500,000 acres," says Michael Reese, renewable energy director at WCROC. "But it's very easy to scale up."

The $3.75 million project is funded through state bonding and University sources. The pilot plant is scheduled for completion in spring 2009.

The production of ammonia currently uses large amounts of fossil fuel energy. Approximately one billion pounds are applied every year for the Minnesota corn crop.

A fourth CREB bond was also approved by the IRS. Its intent is to use the CREB-funded renewable energy system to enhance a green building office addition at the University's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, a project now in the University's Capital Request to the Minnesota Legislature. The total value of the IRS-authorized CREB bonds is about $5.6 million. The University's board of regents will decide by December 31 whether to issue the bonds.

A favorable spin

The second wind turbine, like the first, will stand a mile from the Morris campus, at WCROC's Renewable Energy Research and Demonstration Center. It will send electricity to the campus and will also--pending negotiation of a purchase agreement with a power company--sell some to the power grid in order to cover costs, Rasmussen says. Besides wind, Morris will soon draw energy from different kinds of renewable biomass, or plant material. The campus's new biomass facility is scheduled to start up in May, says Joel Tallaksen, biomass project coordinator at WCROC. It will run on material such as corn stover and wood chips supplied by farmers; also, the campus harvested 300 tons of prairie grass last fall to use for both experimentation and fuel. Currently, the boiler that supplies steam heat to the campus uses $900,000 worth of natural gas per year, says Tallaksen. "We're replacing the $900,000 in natural gas with $400,000 to $500,000 worth of biomass," he says. "There will probably be additional costs in processing the biomass, but that money will go back to the community in the form of hires, plus renting or purchasing equipment locally."

"I don't know of anybody else, any other college or university, doing this on site."-- Lowell Rasmussen, vice chancellor for finance and facilities at Morris

The biomass facility works through gasification, a process in which biomass is heated to release carbon monoxide and hydrogen. These gases are then piped about 20 feet to the boiler, where they are burned to turn water into steam. "We estimate that biomass heat will meet about 80 percent of the peak need in mid-winter," says Tallaksen. "The rest of the year, it should meet the need." The steam will come out of the boiler at much too high a pressure for the campus steam pipes to handle. But not to worry; the excess pressure will be funneled to the new CREB-funded steam turbine to generate electricity. That, plus the electricity from the wind turbines, should meet at least 96 percent of the campus's power needs, says Rasmussen. "The addition of two more wind turbines and one steam turbine, combined with the biomass plant/gasification system currently under construction on our campus, enhances UMM's stewardship of the environment, something that is part of our legacy," says Morris Chancellor Jacqueline Johnson. "Achieving energy independence by 2010 is a phenomenal goal," says University President Robert Bruininks. "But, more importantly, the data and information gathered along the way will help to inform other hybrid renewable energy initiatives across the state and nation." Research, including research opportunities for undergraduates, will be part of the new technologies at Morris. All the projects are expected to be operational by summer 2009. Read more about the original wind turbine.