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Committee discusses options for developing renewable energy in Minn.

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Garbage in the Kandiyohi County landfill and sewage in the Willmar wastewater treatment plant are being eyed as potential sources of energy to create renewable natural gas that could fuel local homes and businesses.

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WILLMAR, Minn. - Garbage in the Kandiyohi County landfill and sewage in the Willmar wastewater treatment plant are being eyed as potential sources of energy to create renewable natural gas that could fuel local homes and businesses.

The list of fuels could also include leftovers from food processing facilities, manure from feedlots and residue from crop farms that could be converted to biomethane and put into the gas grid or trucked directly to Willmar’s coal-fired plant to offset coal use to help meet new environmental requirements. “It’s all about ideas and opportunities,” said Connie Schmoll, from the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

“We have resources to create renewable energy and our community has needs for renewable energy,” said Schmoll, during an early morning meeting Thursday of the EDC’s agriculture and renewable energy committee.

Demands for reduced carbon outputs that are part of the federal Clean Power Plan - along with financial incentives in the form of carbon credits - have increased the financial feasibility and community interest in renewable energy, said Shashi Menon, from EcoEngineers of Des Moines, Iowa.

Menon said instead of viewing the city’s wastewater treatment plant as a financial burden that provides a necessary service, it could become a bioenergy generation facility with an anaerobic digester that produces natural gas.

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Likewise biogas that is generated in the landfill could be collected, cleaned, compressed and sold as fuel.

“What we’re proposing is a total mind shift,” Menon told the group, which included business people, three local legislators, city and county elected officials, representatives from at least one power cooperative and Willmar city staff that oversee the utilities and wastewater treatment facility.

EcoEngineers has done a preliminary assessment of the county and determined the existing wastewater treatment facility, landfill, coal-fired facility and natural gas pipelines provide a solid base for development of a community digester.

“This area is very attractive,” said Jon Kallen, a project developer with EcoEngineers, who pitched the idea of doing an in-depth analysis and exploring financial options for partnering with the community on projects.

Other companies in the renewable energy business are also interested in this region.

John Offerman, from Energy and Organic Systems of Edina, said their system of converting organic waste to energy uses a unique technology that involves microbes and solar-powered compression to create energy, recover fertilizer and reuse water.

Exploring energy options also includes looking at new ways of using old methods.

Sandra Broekema, from Great River Energy, explained how they decreased carbon and increased efficiency at their power plant in North Dakota by incorporating a new technology they call “dryfining.”

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In the process, waste heat that’s naturally generated from the plant’s operation is used to remove moisture from the lignite before it’s burned.

The waste heat is put to use to “improve the quality of the fuel” and reduce mercury, carbon and consumption, she said.

So far, this process has only been done at large coal-fired facilities and additional study would be needed to see if it would work at the Willmar plant.

“It’s all about generating ideas and moving people to action eventually,” said Schmoll, who said the EDC’s job is to be a “conduit” of ideas.

“But there’s a whole lot of work in between there,” she said.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the EDC, said the time might be right for the community to invest in additional renewable energy enterprises.

“This may well be the right time and if it’s not, it might soon be the right time,” Renquist said. “And why can’t this be the right place?”

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