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Burning for Business

Bird Island, Minn. – Like the pellets glowing in the nearby stove, Bob Ryan and Russ Koopman have warmed up to biomass fuel possibilities. They have even started a business producing biomass pellets for stoves.

A mutual interest in finding alternative heat sources sparked their business. Ryan is experienced in home heating as operator of a fireplace store that sells solid pellet fuels. Koopman, an agronomist, bought a pellet stove from Ryan several years ago and began hearing comments from friends and family about how warm his home felt. At a church function, the two talked about finding alternative fuel sources for biomass stoves. After much discussion and planning, they formed Sunrise Agra Fuels in early 2006.

Ryan and Koopman first met business developers interested in their concept who encouraged them to continue their pursuits. Then they contacted AURI’s Al Doering for help developing a fuel made from waste or byproducts, rather than corn and wood pellets that dominate the market.

“They clearly identified the characteristics of the product they wanted,” Doering says. The resulting blend, Island Pellets, is made from ingredients that have minimal value on their own.

“We wanted to find blends that will create 8,000 Btu per pound and have less than 2 percent ash,” Ryan says. And the partners wanted byproducts … “where being a fuel is a secondary use.”

“Going into the market we knew we’d have to be competitive with wood pellets,” Koopman adds. “Corn is cheap if you have access to your own corn. Once you start adding the costs like bagging, we get competitive. Our market will be folks who don’t necessarily have access to corn.”

Koopman and Ryan say their Island Pellets work well combined with corn as they have a Btu value 15 percent higher than corn and about 3 percent higher than hardwood pellets. With a low, 6-to-10 percent moisture content, the pellets help corn burn better and more completely, yielding fewer unburned kernels and softer ash. In tests with multiple burner styles, the pellets have performed well.

At a cost of $4.90 per 40 pound bag, the pellets’ cost per million Btu is lower than wood, natural gas, LP gas, fuel oil and electricity. Sunrise Agra Products is finalizing arrangements with contract pellet processors to fulfill orders that are already coming in.

While the promise of marketing an alternative, natural resource-based fuel is encouraging, Ryan and Koopman are also enthused about the economic gain their venture could bring to Bird Island and western Minnesota.

“We’re not trying to just market a pellet and make money,” Koopman says. “We want to save our customers money, increase farmers revenue and provide economic activity for the community.”

”I’ve been in farming, retail and transportation,” Ryan says. “It’s important to me to provide jobs … and show that not all opportunities are in the metro area.”

Russ Koopman (left) and Bob Ryan founded Sunrise Agra Fuels, which sells Island Pellets, made from waste products, to burn in biomass stoves.