Under the radar—biomass, Xcel and Rock-Tenn in the legislature

Biomass fuels, energy efficiency, and public money are on the line in the legislature, with a decision on the shape of Rock-Tenn’s replacement fuel plant. A House-Senate conference committee will decide whether to accede to Xcel Energy’s demand for limits on public energy use. It will also determine whether and how the community can have a voice in the process. A community advisory council, promised in a memorandum of understanding between Rock-Tenn and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last October, has yet to be created.

When the High Bridge power plant stops burning coal in June, the Rock-Tenn recycling plant in St. Paul will lose its energy source. That poses major concerns for a wide variety of stakeholders throughout the metro area and beyond. Concerns focus on the sources of energy that will replace the coal-generated steam of Xcel’s High Bridge plant.The Rock-Tenn plant, which began as family-owned Waldorf Paper in 1908 and was bought by Rock-Tenn corporation in 1997, processes half of all paper recycled in Minnesota, about one thousand tons daily. Rock-Tenn is an international recycling and manufacturing firm, with about 10,000 employees in plants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Chile. In St. Paul, Rock-Tenn employs about 500 people, at an average salary of $60,000, according to senior executive Jack Greenshields, and spends about $75 million annually on goods and services.Previous stories in this series:
Re-fueling Rock Tenn: environmental and economic challenges

Who’s on First? Keeping track of the players

Following the money: who pays and who profits

Garbage or green energy: a look at the issues around RDF

The burning question: grass versus garbage

The Rock-Tenn plant, located in St. Paul at Cretin Avenue and I-94, will convert from steam produced by burning coal to a biomass-fueled plant. All the players agree that Rock-Tenn is a community asset, employing about 500 people and recycling half of Minnesota’s paper. Beyond that bottom line, serious disagreements center on the type of fuel to be used and on community pressure for involvement in the decision-making process.

Xcel: no competition allowed

Xcel Energy requested legislation to prevent competition from a non-profit or publicly-owned energy plant at Rock-Tenn, and that provision became part of the Senate bill. Early discussions of a new Rock-Tenn power plant included possible operation of the plant by St. Paul District Energy and possible excess steam and energy capacity that could be used for district heating and cooling in the Midway area. The model would be the highly successful, non-profit District Energy operation that provides heating and cooling in downtown St. Paul.

According to Xcel lobbyist Rick Evans, the Senate bill (SF 2096) as it is now written “would prevent District Energy from setting up a district heating and cooling district in the Midway area.”

Senator Ellen Anderson (D-St. Paul), co-chair of the conference committee, insists that nothing in the bill is final, and that “district energy is still under negotiation.”

Community concerns and input

Rock-Tenn’s original plan, strongly supported by the city of St. Paul and the St. Paul Port Authority, called for using refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which many community members oppose as “burning garbage.” Early proposals for a legislative ban on RDF did not make it into the omnibus environment, energy and natural resources bills now in conference committee.

Proposals to give district councils the power to approve or reject plans for the new power plant foundered on strenuous objections from the city of St. Paul. Current language mandates considerably less community involvement, beginning with two “public meetings” before August 1. The bill also says the city council “must take into consideration” district council resolutions from the affected districts. The St. Paul Port Authority would be required to make informational presentations to community meetings, but not until after the planning and the environmental impact statement have been completed.

The environment, energy and natural resources conference committee is chaired by Senator Ellen Anderson and Representative Jean Wagenius (D-Minneapolis).

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