Steve Traeger drove the 200-horsepower, all-wheel-drive tractor into a wall of willow and alder and never flinched.
Brush and small trees bent and snapped, and the BioBaler towed behind the tractor was chewing it up and packing it tightly into half-ton bales as if it were hay.
“When you turn on your lights next week you’ll be burning these bundles,’’ said Paul Sandstrom of the Laurentian Resource Conservation and Development office, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Duluth.
That’s because Minnesota Power has agreed to test the brush bales as biomass fuel for its Hibbard steam and electric generating plant in Duluth.
Made in Quebec, this 14-ton, $125,000 brush-cutting and baling machine is the only one of its kind operating in the U.S.
Traeger, an operator for Stem Power Resources of St. Joseph, Minn., which owns the equipment, was showing off the BioBaler’s abilities Friday as wildlife managers, land managers, loggers, and natural resources and utility officials watched.
Supporters hope to prove that hundreds of thousands of acres of brushland across northern and central Minnesota might become a renewable source of carbon-neutral energy while creating better wildlife habitat for species like sharp-tailed grouse.
Burning biomass for energy has become a hot topic in recent years, and several Minnesota utilities are already burning waste wood, urban tree trimmings and the leftovers from logging sites across the Northland.
But no one has figured out an economical way to tap into the 9 million acres or so of Minnesota covered by brush — stuff too small to be called forest and too big to be prairie.
The BioBaler might change that, combining wildlife management with fuel harvest to lower the cost of both.
Rich Staffon, area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the DNR now spends about $100 per acre to cut, mow and burn about 10,000 acres for sharp-tailed grouse. But that’s only about 5 percent of the former farmland and naturally open land that once existed in the region.
“There are probably a couple hundred thousand acres of former farm fields in my area alone that have grown up to brush, and naturally low areas that used to burn regularly, that we could manage [for wildlife] if we had the money to do it,’’ Staffon said.
The new openings also make good habitat for deer, Satffon noted, one reason the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association is on board with the BioBaler project. A second demonstration is scheduled at the deer hunter’s headquarters Monday near Grand Rapids.
Utilities are eyeing biomass because it’s locally grown, renewable — it grows back in a few years — and is considered a carbon-neutral energy source, unlike coal.
Using brush as biofuels is also attractive because, unlike biomass from larger trees, the utility isn’t competing with paper mills for the resource. The brush baled Friday on this former farmland off U.S. Highway 2, for example, was much too small to be used for lumber or paper.
Minnesota Power now generates only 2 percent of its electricity from biomass, but company officials hope to increase that as they move to comply with state law that 25 percent of their electricity come from renewable fuels by 2025.
Mike Polzin, Minnesota Power’s biofuels expert, said the utility first needs to know the quality of the fuel, Btu’s and dryness, and then how much is available in the region before it could commit to using the brush as regular feedstock for its boilers.
“This [brush] is a new area of biomass that we haven’t looked at previously,’’ Polzin said. “We really need to find out how much of this is available within, say, about 50 miles of our power plants before we can take a serious look at it. But I think this is viable. It has potential.’’