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Green gas grass

Cecil Massie wants to skip the cow.

Cow manure is getting notice as a methane source for generating electricity. But Massie, a chemical engineer, is looking ahead at making methane from haylage — “to green chop the grasses, ensile them in bunker silos and use that as feedstock in an anaerobic digester.”

“It’s analogous to what is done on dairy farms with cow manure except we skip the cow. We’re making methane from grass,” Massie says. “When cow manure is the feedstock, cows get the good stuff. When you skip the cow, you get the good stuff.”

Educators seek renewables

Massie’s work is funded through an AURI renewable-energy initiative. “AURI has $150,000 from the Xcel Renewable Energy Fund to provide three grants to school districts to assess opportunities for replacing or minimizing energy costs,” says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director in Marshall. Last year, AURI issued an RFP for the funds and set up review panels in each region to assess proposals.

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro was awarded one of the grants. “Eagle Bluff wanted to utilize biomass or switch grass or other residues like wood waste from the logging industry,” Timmerman says. “They knew they wanted to convert biomass to gas – they just didn’t know how they were going to do it.”

“Eagle Bluff is a large campus with dormitories, meeting halls and other facilities that can accommodate up to 300 students,” who stay for three to five day environmental-education experiences, Timmerman says. “They are interested in something that reduces their carbon footprint.”

Two other grants were awarded to Lac qui Parle Valley High School in west-central Minnesota for a wind-power and biodiesel-backup power system and to Warroad High School in northern Minnesota for assessing a biodiesel power-generator system.

The Eagle Bluff funds were used in part to hire Massie who has three decades of experience designing energy systems and “has done a lot of work related to biomass utilization,” Timmerman says.

“The original concept was to gasify biomass and use syngas to fire a boiler,” Timmerman says. But Massie came up with a different concept, “to use a small digester, capture methane and use it as natural-gas replacement in winter. In the summer, they can use the same gas to fire an evaporative absorption unit — like a camper frig that’s run on gas.”


Massie is executive vice president of 6Solutions LLC, which he founded in 2005 with partner Derek Milller “to develop renewable energy projects as a means to rural economic development” and find eco-friendly solutions to air and water pollution, states the company’s Web site.

While Eagle Bluff is “exploring various options for reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions and environmental footprint,” Massie says there is broader interest in “whether or not we can divert sensitive HEL (highly-erodable lands) to perennial crops that could be used to produce biomass for energy.

“There are a number of parallel efforts … I’m working on one very narrow one — whether it’s technically feasible and, secondly, economically practical to produce enough electricity from gasses to offset electrical consumption of the facility.

“It’s not been done with grass before — although pipeline-quality gas from cow manure with a conventional anaerobic digester” in Wisconsin is being transferred several hundred miles through a pipeline.

“Eagle Bluff’s project is technically feasible, but the economics are very challenging,” Massie says.

He is investigating three questions: “One, what is the capital investment, which requires a flow sheet, equipment costing, installation costs, and site plan development. Then, what is the market value of the electricity we’re displacing?” Finally, Massie says he’s determining, “What can we afford to pay the farmer for the haylage to be competitive — or some higher electricity price that we determine?” The study has been underway since April and is being completed this fall.

“If my instincts are right, even if this turns out to not be economically attractive, it will have defined the point where we might get a successful project. Even finding out it’s not a good idea sets us down a different path.”

Path to 25/25

Massie is on the Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable, working on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 25/25 goal where Minnesota would produce 25 percent of its own energy by 2025. Meeting the goal requires more than 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy.

“It will take $20 billion in capital investment for 25 percent renewables by 2025,” Massie says.

“Engineering will account for 10 percent,” or $2 billion in engineering fees between now and 2025, Massie says, adding that he has spoken with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system about strengthening engineering and technology programs.

“There is also $8 billion in construction labor. Having skilled labor to install all this equipment and then run these facilities will put a demand on our educational and technical-training capabilities.”

He consults with individual counties to lay out renewable-energy plans. “Boards look at these things and say, ‘We’re suffering a population decline because there are no jobs. There is a grave concern that people will not be able to pay their heating bills and the county tax base is not expanding fast enough to keep up with demand for social services.”

“We need a battle plan for renewable energy … a means to re-invigorate rural Minnesota.”