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Electricity from waste wood would continue under bill sent to governor

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For a small bug, the emerald ash borer is certainly making big changes to the state’s landscape. Many neighborhoods that were tree-lined and verdant just weeks ago now have empty boulevards and full views of the sky.

So what happens to all those trees cut down to contain the infestation of insects? In the Twin Cities area, the primary destination is the District Energy plant in Downtown St. Paul. There, that waste wood is burned to create energy. Some of it is used to heat and cool a section of the city that includes the State Capitol complex.

But it’s also converted to electricity that’s purchased by Xcel Energy, which provides electrical service to much of Minnesota. And that relationship would continue through 2024 under a bill passed 87-46 by the House Saturday. HF1255/SF1047*, sponsored by Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) and Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester), was passed 66-0 by the Senate May 6, so it’s on its way to the governor’s desk.

The bill would require the plant to continue using waste wood as its primary fuel source and require Xcel Energy to pay less for the electricity than under the existing agreement.

“It’s estimated that 265,000 tons of wood waste will go through District Energy this year,” Hansen said. “The bill that’s in front of us provides a temporary solution to an increasing problem.”

Amendments were unsuccessfully introduced that would have required no for-profit entity benefit from the agreement, reduced the maximum price at which the electricity could be purchased, and commissioned a study on ash waste.

The final bill moves the deadline out a year — to Aug. 1, 2022 — for a new agreement between Xcel and District Energy to be submitted to the Public Utilities Commission, and doesn’t contain House language that would require Xcel to submit a proposal to power the district heating system from renewable energy sources.

Xcel Energy's contract with District Energy St. Paul, set to expire after 2022, arose from a 1994 law that required the utility to purchase 125 megawatts of electricity from biomass plants by 2003. The mandate was in exchange for legislation that allowed Xcel Energy to store nuclear waste on land at its Prairie Island plant.

“This is very important to many counties as they attempt to deal with emerald ash borer,” said Rep. Greg Boe (R-Chanhassen). “This facility offers one of the few options to deal with this material.”

“This issue of emerald ash borer is a big one, but who bears the cost?” asked Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent). “It’s not fair to folks who live in your district who are customers of Xcel Energy.”

“We’re in an emergency right now,” Hansen said. “This two-year extension buys us some time. … Heaven help us when it gets into the black ash of Northern Minnesota and spreads there. … Twelve years we’ve been dealing with this, and, yes, the ratepayers are going to be paying, but less than what they’re paying right now. Prevention is better than cleanup. We’ve missed much of the prevention opportunities. We’re now on cleanup.”

— Session Daily writer Nate Gotlieb contributed to this story.


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