In the beginning, it was a project that appeared overly ambitious to many, yet so full of promise it had to be attempted.
A fledgling, farmer-owned cooperative, Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers (MnVAP), would build and supply a revolutionary, alfalfa-powered electrical plant in western Minnesota. Farmers would get a new, value-added crop to work into the traditional rotation, plus the guarantee of a stable income for as long as 20 years. And consumers would get a new source of clean, renewable power and other environmental benefits.
But in late 1999, after six years of effort, MnVAP officials announced they were suspending development of the highly publicized and sometimes maligned energy project.
Fully understanding how MnVAP's energy project unraveled requires tracing a progression of events back to 1993. Following one of the most contentious debates in its history, the Minnesota Legislature agreed with Northern States Power (NSP) that NSP would produce a small share of its electricity from renewable energy sources, including wind and biomass. In return, the state agreed to allow the Minneapolis-based utility to continue storing nuclear wastes at its Prairie Island, MN, facility.
NSP was already investigating crops that could be grown in its service territory as fuel for biomass power generation. In 1993, the utility asked the University of Minnesota's Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products for research help.
Several university researchers and staff were intrigued by NSP's proposal. The key was finding a material that could be turned into electricity easily and cheaply and make economic sense for farmers.
"Whatever the crop was, it had to have a number of uses," says center director Erv Oelke. Alfalfa emerged quickly as an ideal candidate. As a legume, the crop would enhance corn yields, reduce nitrogen inputs, break up the disease cycle for soybean cyst nematode, even help farmers utilize labor more efficiently.
Best of all were prospects for adding value to alfalfa. The stems could be separated from leaves and used as fuel to make electricity. Leaves could be made into a high-protein feed. That fit nicely with the center's mission of helping farmers develop new marketing opportunities.
The center began assembling a research team. While engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and several private companies studied methods of turning alfalfa stems into a gas to power turbines and make electricity, university agronomists mapped out harvest schemes and animal scientists launched feeding trials. More than 20 university researchers would become involved in the project. Eventually, more than $1 million of university resources would be committed.
In the summer of 1993, NSP held an informational meeting in Granite Falls, MN. Local farmer Dick Jepson recalls being skeptical when he first heard about turning alfalfa into electricity.
"By the end of the meeting, I was excited," he says. "This area has always been pretty much corn and soybeans with some sugar beets. Having another crop for the rotation would benefit people."
At a follow-up meeting later that year, a steering committee of 10 farmers was formed. Each farmer ponied up $50 and the local Chamber of Commerce contributed another $500 for mailings to gauge the interest of local farmers. MnVAP had been born.
In 1994, the university, NSP, DOE and the Electric Power Research Institute released a feasibility study outlining the project. The proposal was unprecedented in size and scope. A 75-megawatt electrical plant (large enough to provide power for a city of 50,000 people) would use alfalfa stems as a fuel source.
The plant would require 680,000 tons of alfalfa feedstock - the production from 180,000 acres. Alfalfa stems would make up 40% of the tonnage. The remaining 60% would be used for processed alfalfa products, including alfalfa leaf meal. Operating at 85% capacity, the study estimated, the alfalfa processing and power production venture could generate annual revenues exceeding $80 million.
Soon afterward, NSP announced it wouldn't be constructing the power plant. It had only participated in the study to sketch out a general concept. Actually building the plant would be up to an independent general contractor.
Furthermore, NSP reportedly said, if MnVAP wanted to satisfy a portion of the biomass mandate, it would have to compete with other potential suppliers. These included a group proposing the use of hybrid poplars and another looking at the use of waste wood.
The announcement stunned MnVAP organizers.
"When they originally came out, we got the idea they were proposing a joint venture and that they would build the power plant," says Jepson. "When we heard otherwise, we were angry. We felt like they had led us along this certain path and then dropped us like a hot potato."
By this time, though, local farmer enthusiasm for the project was skyrocketing. The steering committee was now a full-fledged co-op with a growing number of shareholders. Jepson had become its first board chairman.
"We had a decision to make. Our membership was very enthused. The signal we got was 'Let's continue to pursue it.' "
With no experience in the extremely complex energy industry, the co-op turned to the university for help in lining up partners. Eventually, a Boston-based engineering firm, a Finnish firm with expertise in gasification technology, and Westinghouse Electric came on board. The project got another boost when DOE pledged substantial grant money for research and development.
To Oelke and others, it looked like the project was beginning to jell. "All of the players and capabilities were certainly there to get it done," he says.
As things turned out, that was not the case.