Bird Island, Minn. – Sunrise Agra Fuels has given an old pellet facility new life and is now Minnesota’s first commercial producer of ag-based biomass fuel pellets.

The Bird Island company is leasing a Kensington, Minn. pellet mill to produce Island Pellets, a blend of agricultural residues, such as soybean straw and sunflowers hulls, with forestry waste. Sunrise Vice President Bob Ryan says the plant should produce 3,000 to 4,000 tons of pellets a year for home heating. The company’s long-term goal is to build a pellet facility than can produce up to 100,000 tons per year.

Since October, Sunrise has been delivering pellets to hearth-and-stove and farm-and-feed stores. “We’re establishing a dealer network and working to educate people,” about heating with pellets made from regional and renewable products.

Ryan and company partner Russ Koopman began working with AURI in 2006, developing their pellet blend while assessing market potential. They jumped in with small-scale production but quickly realized they had entered the market too soon and withdrew. Ryan says it was a good lesson learned.

Sunrise has since widened its focus from simply producing fuel pellets to raising awareness about systems that use biobased fuels.

“It’s important to educate people not only about our products, but also about equipment that is available to burn blended fuels,” Ryan says.

“Sunrise is very proactive in promoting biomass for residential or industrial applications,” says Alan Doering, AURI scientist, “from identifying potential fuels to the end use.”

U.S. companies take a look at European technology

In September, 13 European companies showcased their biomass systems for heating and cooling at the International Bioenergy Days in Mankato. The event was designed to educate consumers and policy makers about biomass-utilization technologies in other parts of the world, particularly Sweden.

Bob Ryan, vice president of Sunrise Agra Fuels who chaired the event’s organizing committee, says he would like to see these systems — that use biomass for everything from room heating to whole-house heating and air conditioning — replicated in the United States. “It’s extremely high-efficiency equipment … it’s unbelievable,” Ryan says.

Much of Sweden’s technology and innovation comes from small companies that design and manufacture equipment, install it, then provide support for the system, Ryan says.

Three of the European companies at the conference have already formed alliances with U.S. companies for possible manufacturing and distribution in this country. And several U.S. universities are testing European technologies.

While transportation fuels have captured much of this country’s attention, more than 70 percent of the nation’s energy need is for heating, cooling and electrical generation, Ryan says.

“It’s a slow process. Ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy get a lot of attention, but thermal isn’t really talked about.” Given the Great Plains biomass resources, “it’s one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever seen.”