Wisconsin’s pursuit of biomass as a renewable energy is doing little to fire up work in the construction industry.
“It’s frustrating,” said Thomas Fisher, president and business manager of the De Forest-based Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council. “We continue to train members for jobs when work does break, but we still have over a thousand workers that don’t have jobs right now.
“We’ve been able to do some dirt work on projects, but when it comes to building, it’s really dry out there.”
Power companies need to find material to feed existing biomass plants before focusing on new projects, said Dave Donovan, manager of Wisconsin regulatory policy for Xcel Energy. It’s a matter of supply and demand, he said.
“As more supplies become available,” Donovan said, “I think you’ll see more jobs and plants, but it’s going to take time.”
Biomass is a source of renewable energy taken from living or recently-living material such as wood or plants. It can be used to produce heat or generate electricity.
Xcel burns biomass at plants in La Crosse and Ashland and is waiting for Public Service Commission of Wisconsin approval to convert one more boiler at Xcel’s Ashland plant to burn biomass.
The utility also teamed up with the Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence to give a $25,000 grant to the Madison-based Energy Center of Wisconsin to study wood in West Salem for use in power plants.
Joe Kramer, the Energy Center’s senior project manager, said if the study determines West Salem has enough low-quality wood, such as mill leftovers or scraps from logging, utilities might consider building power or processing plants in the area.
“But we’re also going to be looking at what other demands there are,” he said. “Maybe there’s a conversion option, maybe there’s a storage option.”
For now, though, the biomass and renewable energy market is short on options. The Sanimax biodiesel facility in De Forest stopped production last month, and plans for a River Valley Energy LLC ethanol plant in Arena are postponed.
Still, state Rep. Jeff Wood, I-Chippewa Falls, said there is no harm spending state money to study biomass development.
“Wisconsin is poised to capture the market if there is a market,” he said, particularly as it applies to renewable energy sources.
Yet Wood said state officials are aware the market might never materialize.
“I don’t want to throw money at every quirky idea out there,” he said. “But I’m not going to second guess the Office of Energy Independence on this. It can’t hurt to do a bit of research.”
Using wood for fuel is inevitable, said Gerry Ring, chairman of the Paper Science and Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. But he said it could take years to develop the technology to break wood down into components power plants can use.
“Before they discovered cheap oil, chemistry was based on plants and woods,” he said. “They’re going to have to get back to that eventually.”
That does not do much for construction workers sitting on the bench, Fisher said.
“I know there’s going to be other stimulus work coming out, thank God, so there will be something,” he said.
“But if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know.
“The other problem we have is retaining members. They’re not going to sit by the phone waiting. They need to feed families.”