Most new buildings do not announce their presence with quite as much drama as this one will.
Twenty-five times over a period of days, and for 20 minutes at a time, an innovative new power plant along the riverfront in Shakopee will give off a blast that one official likened to a "factory steam whistle, only a hundred times more powerful," and another compares to multiple freight trains roaring through town side by side.
Startling as it will seem to those nearby, the commotion will cease after a week or so. And by the end of the year, the $60 million Koda Energy plant will quietly begin turning what are now waste products -- like the hulls left behind when breakfast cereal is made -- into heat and electricity. Eventually it could start burning things like prairie grasses growing in roadside ditches.
"We could make a chain of these things using fuel that is grown within the state of Minnesota to a large extent, and that unlike a wind generator, runs 24/7," said Stan Ellison of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which is working with Rahr Malting Co. to create the plant. "Combined with wind power, we could end up with a very reliable and fairly robust system that creates electricity without relying on fossil fuels from outside the United States. Everyone thinks that's a good thing."
Experts from the University of Minnesota are getting involved as well, in hopes of finding out whether farmers could turn scraps of waste land into a new type of crop: native grasses or other plants that could be harvested, dried and burned inside the plant to turn its gigantic turbine blades.
"We've also been talking to MnDOT about using their right of ways to harvest grasses," said Dean Current, program director for the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management in the university's College of Agriculture in St. Paul. "It's one of those things we're often in as researchers where it's the chicken and the egg: No one's going to grow these things unless there's a market for it, so we can't test how the market will work. This plant has bridged that gap."
Rahr was interested because it needs the energy and heat as it creates malt for the brewing industry. Fuel costs were rising, and it was shipping truckloads of waste material off site. Now that same castoff material will be shot through pneumatic tubes -- the same type you use at the drive-up bank -- into storage bins to be burned later.
Xcel Energy will get what Rahr doesn't need, providing a revenue stream. And eventually, after many approvals, the Shakopee tribe wants to hook up for electricity itself as part of a wider, long-term plan to become self-sufficient as a sovereign entity.
Steam blows get rid of debris
Work on the plant began in September 2007. One of the last steps is the "steam blows," those loud train-like whooshing noises, which will start sometime after Thanksgiving.
"We'd like the plant to be fully operational by Dec. 31," said Joe Johansen, general manager of Koda Energy.
The steam blows are needed to make sure any contaminants in the system from the construction process -- dirt, insects, debris -- are blown out of it before it's hooked to the turbine blades. The steam that turns the blades needs to be pure. Steam will build up and then be released, day after day, falling to the Earth as mist.
The noise will be audible to those roughly within a mile radius of the plant, Koda officials said.
Biomass energy skeptics point out that thousands of acres of a plant such as switchgrass can be needed to drive just a small plant like this one, with its 27-megawatt output. But Current said there's a big upside to that reality.
"The perennial crops for the plant can have lots of other benefits," he said. "We could plant grass on a flood plain whose corn crop would get wiped out every three years. We can plant on stream banks in a way that helps keep water pure, and stops erosion and the migration of chemicals. So the fact that this can consume many, many acres, and be of benefit to farmers, is a good thing."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023