Biomass unit will supply electricity on campus

Cody Boyer

NMU administrators plan to start operating its new biomass energy unit full-time at the Ripley Heating Plant in an effort to use more renewable sources of energy to power the school.

According to the NMU Engineering and Planning Department, the plant will be using wood chips and other plant refuse from sources located in the Marquette area.

NMU Project Manager Giselle Duehring said the new method of supplying the university with energy will cut back on some of the larger utility costs.

“Before building the biomass unit addition onto NMU’s Ripley Plant, all the steam generation units were natural gas-fired with fuel oil back-up,” Duehring said. “Since fuel costs are the largest part of the operating budget of a generation plant, NMU decided to diversify our fuel options to include a non-fossil fuel so that, over the life of the plant, we would not be tied to just one fuel market. So now we have the choice of using our biomass-fired units and/or gas-fired units.”

According to Duehring, the new biomass unit will supply NMU with 15 to 18 percent of its overall electrical power. Duehring said the unit’s installation was a part of a campus energy optimization project and the different method of producing electricity and heat will alter natural emissions from the plant.

“Carbon footprint calculations have numerous variables,” Duehring said. “For example, if the electricity we generate burning local wood chips displaces power that was generated with coal, that has a different effect on the carbon footprint than if the electricity we generate displaces power that the (Michigan Board of Light and Power) purchases from elsewhere that was generated by a method other than burning coal.”

The biomass unit was completed in June earlier this year, according to the Engineering and Planning Department. Duehring said the biomass unit was turned over to NMU for operation in early August and equipment is still being adjusted by Johnson Control Inc., the architect and engineer of the plant.

Sophomore environmental science major Eric Martin — who contributed research pertaining to the possibility of using leftover wood chip ashes as a stabilizer for agricultural land or options alongside Dr. Susy Zeigler for his freshman fellowship project — said the benefits of the biomass unit will aid energy consumption at NMU.

“I think it is a great alternative to the coal-fire plant that they [currently] have,” Martin said. “It’s a good backup if it ever goes out or if they can use it if coal prices become more expensive than the wood chips. It’s a greater fuel than what coal is, as well.”

Martin said the byproducts from running the plant can be used for other useful purposes.

“Part of the project that I was working on last semester was to find the uses for the ashes produced afterwards when the wood chips are burned up,” Martin said. “The ashes could also be used to condition soil for farm fields. Here up in the U.P., the soil is really acidic while the ashes are really basic and so it can be reused for that sort of purpose.”

According to the Engineering and Planning Department, the plant has been running well since June but requires additional inspections before the facility can run at full capacity.