Energy 'showcase' in Shakopee sees some ups and downs

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2013 - 3:26 PM

The Met Council’s effort to save energy in Shakopee gets helped and hurt by “dramatic” changes in cost.

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An aerial view of Blue Lake Wastewater Treatment Plant in Shakopee, where the Met Council is trying to add a major solar array.

Photo: Photo by Bordner Aerials,

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One of the state’s largest solar panel arrays will soon go up along the highway near Valleyfair, where it will sit quietly baking in the sun’s rays.

It will change the landscape of the area, but it won’t begin to hint at the turbulence that lies behind its birth.

Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Council has been seeking to make the wastewater treatment plant those panels will help power, called Blue Lake, into an energy-saving showcase.

But the economics have been greatly altered both for good and for bad by some dizzying changes in cost:

• On the solar side, the project benefited from a 75 percent plunge in cost of materials.

• But the other big effort, to turn waste into biogas, is not producing anything like the payback once promised.

An annual savings once pegged at $1 million dropped to $600,000 by the time the council’s 2012 annual report was released, then to just $500,000 by the time the first year’s results were in.

What happened? “Natural gas prices went down dramatically,” said council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge.

The once-costly substance the biogas aims to replace got a whole lot cheaper. “Fracking,” adding new gas supplies from shale, has helped push prices down to a sliver of what they were in the mid-2000s — cheaper today than in decades.

Met Council officials stress that economics in the baldest, spreadsheet sense are not the only thing that counts in these kinds of projects.

“The most important thing for our customers is savings over the long term,” Jason Willett, finance director for the Met Council’s wastewater arm, told a council committee. “But it’s also social things, environmental things: It creates jobs, tax base, energy independence, security of supply, and it benefits the council’s image.”

Second biggest?

If the solar array were to be built today, he said, it would be the second biggest in the state, after one in Slayton, in southwest Minnesota.

It actually won’t be built today, and given the need for construction permits and the like, and the fact that lots of big projects are in the works, it may not be No. 2 by the time it does go up — perhaps not beginning until 2014.

The Blue Lake plant treats an average of 28 million gallons of wastewater daily, the council says, from 285,000 people in 27 communities from the Lake Minnetonka area through Chaska and out to Prior Lake.

The biogas effort is back in the news this summer because it’s been going long enough — a 32-month construction period lasted from 2009 to April 2012 — to start seeing some tangible results. CenterPoint Energy wrote the council a check for $150,000 as a rebate for natural gas saved so far.

Officials say the $27.8 million cost was covered mainly by a $25.8 million state loan and a $2 million federal stimulus grant for “green” infrastructure.

The solar effort, on the other hand, is the result of prolonged negotiations with a private operator that will finance the project and accept any risk.

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