BENSON - One of Benson's largest employers is looking to expand its plant by developing a second business operation that will create new jobs and add value to the crops raised by its member owners.
The question is will the city of Benson provide the keys to the former Fibrominn facility to make it all possible.
That will be the topic Monday, when representatives of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and BioPro meet with the Benson City Council.
"It's a win, win, win for everybody,'' said Chad Friese, general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol. He will join Truman Homme, CEO and board chair of BioPro Power of Spicer, in asking the City Council to support their request to purchase the former power plant building and its combustion system.
The two companies are interested in about 8.41 acres of the 77-acre site. They are not interested in the haul building or administrative office and trucking facility that Brightmark Energy, of San Francisco, California, is seeking to acquire.
Brightmark Energy wants to produce renewable natural gas at the site by using animal and plant wastes from nearby dairies and possibly other farms in an anaerobic digester it would construct there.
BioPro and Chippewa Valley Ethanol believe there is plenty of room at the site for the two operations to co-locate, making it possible for both entities to create new jobs and economic activity for the area.
The problem is this: Xcel Energy has offered to sell the site to Brightmark, which has the support of the city of Benson in its quest to acquire the property for its project.
"Essentially, at this point we're out,'' Friese said. Xcel had declined a bid by Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and BioPro to acquire the site.
Xcel Energy had purchased and closed the Fibrominn operation, which produced electricity by using turkey manure and wood chips as a fuel source. Xcel Energy was obligated to buy the biomass-produced power as part of an agreement to continue storing spent nuclear fuel. Last year, the company persuaded legislators and the Public Utilities Commission to allow it to buy out the plant - by that time known as Benson Power - and save ratepayers millions of dollars by doing so, while continuing to support renewable energy by using solar- and wind-generated electricity.
Xcel Energy is obligated to dismantle and remove the Fibrominn power plant, which is very likely to happen if Brightmark become the site's sole occupant. Brightmark is not interested in utilizing the power plant whatsoever.
BioPro wants the plant, but it is also offering to take on the responsibility for dismantling it if the proposal to produce steam from corn stover does not work, according to Homme and Friese.
The companies do not want the turbine used to produce electricity; Xcel could sell it, they added.
BioPro has U.S. and Chinese patents for technology that allow it to reliably combust corn stover as a fuel to produce steam.
And it's steam that Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company wants. Friese said the ethanol producer is at the end of the natural gas pipeline. It uses natural gas to produce steam for its operations. It cannot purchase additional natural gas to make possible a desired expansion of its operations from 55 million gallons a year to 120 million gallons without making very costly investments in expanding the natural gas pipeline serving the area.
In contrast, the combustion plant at the Fibrominn plant is available at a bargain basement price. With a low capital outlay, the ethanol company can adapt the plant to produce the steam it needs for an expanded operation.
It would use only corn stover as fuel, all of it harvested from the fields of its member owners. The cooperative has over 900 members, and a number of them had been interested in the value-added opportunity of harvesting a portion of the corn stover as fuel.
Friese said Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company had previously analyzed the costs and logistics of using corn cobs and stover as fuel when it built a gasifier in the early 2000s. It was looking at ways to reduce its reliance on natural gas.
That and other research also showed that periodically harvesting a portion of the corn stover in fields can benefit corn yields, he said.
The gasification approach cannot compete with natural gas at today's prices, according to Friese. Additional analysis is needed, but it appears that straight combustion of corn stover in a low-cost facility using BioPro's technology would work economically, he said.
The city of Benson is believed to be in the driver's seat in terms of what happens to the Fibrominn site. Homme and Friese said they hope that support from the city would lead Xcel to reconsider and allow Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and BioPro to co-locate on the site with Brightmark.
They are hoping that support can be found before Xcel begins to dismantle the Fibrominn power facility and that asset is lost. "Once it's gone, it gone,'' Homme said.