New energy plant to implement organic power

Lynne Kozarek

A new power plant, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Northern States Power and the University, will be powered by plants.
The University’s Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products is part of an effort to build the largest biomass power facility in the world by 2001. Biomass is a scientific term for organic matter; the power plant will use alfalfa plants to generate electricity. It is hailed by proponents as Minnesota’s best example of sustainable development.
“We have had very positive feedback about this,” said Audrey Zibelman, manager for resource planning at NSP. “A lot of people are very excited about this. It’s cutting edge.”
Ervin Oelke, University professor of agronomy and plant genetics, said that Minnesota Agri-Power, the alfalfa power plant project, will be watched by scientists all over the world.
“If it works here,” Oelke said, “it will work worldwide.”
Energy in the Granite Falls plant would be derived from alfalfa by separating the stems from the leaves and feeding the stems into a pressurized cylinder, where they are burned, creating steam and other gases. The unwanted by-products are then collected and cleaned, while the steam is converted into electricity.
“Other examples of this technology using biomass include turning corn kernels into ethanol,” Oelke said, “but corn is expensive.”
Revenue from this project will come from two sources: the energy produced by the alfalfa stems and from the high-value animal protein feed made with the leaves of the alfalfa plant.
Zibelman said another proposal for biomass power production was to use a fast-growing type of poplar tree. Some states also use sugar cane as a power-producing biomass.
The alfalfa facility is slated for completion in 2001.
Oelke said that increased production of the alfalfa will result in less tilling of the soil and better erosion control. Alfalfa uses less fertilizer and fewer pesticides than the corn and soybean crops that are predominant in western Minnesota.
Zibelman said that the facility will have a positive impact on Minnesota’s rural economy.
Oelke said the project will create 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs once the plant is operational.
The facility will operate as a 75 megawatt power plant, creating enough electrical energy to meet the needs of 75,000 people. A nuclear power plant, such as NSP’s Prairie Island nuclear generator, typically runs at 1,200 megawatts.
Under new legislation, NSP is required to produce 125 megawatts of biomass energy by 2001. Seventy-five megawatts will come from the alfalfa facility in Granite Falls, 25 megawatts are expected to come from waste wood in St. Paul, and NSP is currently accepting proposals to fulfill the remaining biomass power requirements.
The project is a public-private partnership, but the U.S. Department of Energy will give up to $4.1 million to design the facility and $40 million during construction. The total cost of the facility is $200 million.
“The private contributors were very interested in the concept,” Oelke said. He said a proposed 25-year contract for the facility’s operation will be attractive for future corporate partners.