Growing a Vibrant Northern MN Bioeconomy

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Post date: January 8, 2016
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Northern Minnesota has several elements – a strong natural resource base, existing supply chain infrastructure, history of industrial manufacturing – in place to help develop a robust bioeconomy cluster, but there is much more work to do to fully capture available opportunities. GPI has served as convener of the Bioeconomy Coalition of MN and in 2015 the Coalition successfully advocated for the creation of a new financing program – the Bioeconomy Production Incentive – aimed at scaling-up commercial production of advanced biofuels, biobased chemicals, and biomass thermal projects at commercial scale in MN (more detail about the policy can be found here). The Incentive makes MN one of the best places in the world to develop biobased projects. 

Yet, even with a new financing program aimed at attracting new biobased economic development, coordinated strategies and networks are needed to convert opportunity to reality. 

The vision for a robust bioeconomy cluster would have consistent and reliable access to feedstock, financing assistance from research and development (R&D) through commercialization, a pipeline of projects scaling-up from R&D into full commercialization, projects that would transform raw materials into intermediate compounds, and projects that would manufacture intermediate compounds into finished products. The cluster would add to the existing resource base and create new economic development opportunities in the long-term.

In order make the vision for a northern Minnesota bioeconomy cluster a reality, GPI partnered with the Natural Resource Research Institute (NRRI), Ecolibrium3, the Blandin Foundation, and the Bioeconomy Coalition to help organize a meeting aimed at developing a coordinated strategy for growing a vibrant Northern Minnesota bioeconomy.

The meeting was organized to begin to answer three big questions: 

  1. 1. What barriers exist in growing a Northern bioeconomy cluster? 
  2. 2. What coordinated steps can help overcome those barriers?
  3. 3. How can we make the connections necessary to get this work done? 

In addition to discussing these three big questions, meeting attendees heard presentations on potential future projects that would produce advanced biofuels, biobased chemicals, or biomass thermal and electrical energy, examined feedstock supply and management issues, and heard about the wide array of R&D efforts at the University of Minnesota. 

Although there are several activities already underway, it became clear through the presentations and discussion that a more concerted effort is needed to align all the pieces and coordinate implementation actions to most effectively take advantage of emerging opportunities. 

Needs and action steps

There is a lot of work to be done to fully realize a strong bioeconomy sector in northern MN. Tackling a set of action steps could get us a bit closer. 

  • Facilitate greater market connections: identify end users with sources of biomass, develop and strengthen relationships between suppliers and users, attract manufacturers to make finished products from biobased chemicals, and work with existing companies to add biobased production.
  • Increase utilization of wood pellets to help drive market demand: better characterize market for biomass heating at commercial and industrial applications, and ensure that regulations do not create additional barriers.
  • Address feedstock supply challenges: use available data on different types of wood availability to determine gaps, work with existing supply chain, and avoid fragmentation by addressing tax issues to ensure a consistent supply of wood.
  • Ensure adequate infrastructure is in place to meet demand: need to have diversified markets to keep existing logging infrastructure in place and growing, match supply with demand and have markets that can use low-value material (slash), and implement incentives to replace lost logging infrastructure capacity.
  • Ensure adequate technology pipeline: increase or implement new targeted investments in research, leverage federal research, where possible, and conduct a spatial analysis of forest land to determine optimal areas for increased harvest.

GPI, through our work in the Bioeconomy Coalition of MN, and with our partners will continue to move forward with developing and implementing strategies for bioeconomy development in northern MN and other regions of the state.