Owen column: Nemadji Trail Center needs clean fuel source

Bayfield Electric Cooperative (BEC) distributes electricity to my small Bayfield County hay farm. BEC buys electricity from Dairyland Power Cooperative (DPC), and I buy what BEC provides. I pay for DPC’s past fossil-fuel mistakes, but I will not pay for a future fossil-fueled blunder.

DPC and South Shore Energy, LLC (Allete/Minnesota Power) may be about to make a huge mistake by building Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC), a large natural-gas-fueled power plant in Superior, without procuring a renewable fuel supply.

As an engineer, I know that NTEC could be valuable to the electric grid -- if it were renewably fueled.

But the days we can afford to emit another 2.7 million tons of fossil CO2 to the atmosphere annually are over. Climate change is already upon us. Carbon taxes will probably destroy the economics of NTEC as a fossil-fueled facility before it is built.

Political momentum is building for a carbon fee or tax. It’s a question of when, not if, it will be imposed. As a member of BEC, I would pay for such a tax, and I would pay more if NTEC would use fossil natural gas. Fossil natural gas is a bridge only to bankruptcy or climate hell.


I find the argument that we should burn more natural gas so we can use more wind and solar energy unpersuasive. No number of piously posturing politicians intoning such nonsense or PSC political hacks asserting that they can legally ignore climate change while pondering NTEC approval will change my view.

Cooperative boards should understand that they ignore their members’ clean energy preferences at their institutions’ peril. Virtually every co-op member will have an economic solar self-generation option by 2025. Members like me, who already own solar arrays, will have the grid defection option sooner.

As inverter-charge-controller and battery costs decline and already-high co-op fixed charges continue to rise, co-ops face a growing risk of member loss to self-generation. This risk multiplies if the co-op appears pro fossil fuel.

Minnesota Power should understand that its customers also know that it is part of the fossil fuel project proposal, despite the alias, and they mostly don’t like it either. The major self-generation loss risks for MP may come later, perhaps 2030 or so, due to lower fixed charges, but MP is not immune.

Utilities should line up a sustainable, renewable methane, fuel supply for NTEC. They could supply renewable methane (1) by digesting surplus hay, grass clippings and other biomass in the Greater Twin Ports Region and (2) by using the power-to-gas: methane process to make methane from temporary surplus wind and solar energy, CO2 captured locally, and water.

Procuring a local renewable fuel source -- better yet, two sources -- would create both rural and urban jobs and avoid the export of more local energy dollars to gas-producing states.

I would love to be able to sell hay to a digester making renewable methane for NTEC. Perennial hay is an abundant, sustainable, crop in this region. Many landowners could increase hay production to serve a local clean energy market.

Town road and county highway departments could feed that market with grass clippings, as could the Twin Ports. We could use all of this biomass to produce renewable methane fuel. We could store renewable methane seasonally in our existing natural gas system.


The jobs created to make more hay and turn it into renewable methane and the added payments to farmers, road and highway departments, and municipalities for hay and grass would enhance the economy of the Greater Twin Ports Region.

This contrasts with the purchase of fossil natural gas, which involves large money transfers to other states and Alberta, all of which cumulatively serve as a large drag on our regional economy.

Making renewable methane is likely to be a key part of the long-run strategy to support our electricity needs when solar and wind energy falter, batteries are flat, and we can no longer burn fossil natural gas. Batteries alone can’t handle week-long or seasonal shortfalls of wind and solar energy.

Fueled by renewable methane, NTEC could be a key facility to successfully address the variability of solar and wind energy. Power-to-gas: methane is a promising technology to balance natural fluctuations of solar and wind energy and store temporary surpluses for later use, even months later.

Now is the time for NTEC’s co-owners to fully embrace our clean energy future and protect both the climate and their own futures on tomorrow’s clean energy grid by seizing the opportunity to procure a renewable methane fuel source or sources for NTEC.

Robert Owen of Middleton and the town of Keystone, Wis., is a meteorologist, mechanical engineer and a retired wind and solar consultant.

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