Reality, Challenge, Set In With Fibrominn Demolition

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

A 12-year-old $230 million energy facility employing more than 40 people and paying $821,000 in real estate taxes to local governments would seem to be an economic plus for a community and have a bright future.

But times change and these days that change can be incredibly rapid. Biomass was the new power source of the future that was going to end U.S. reliance on foreign oil and gas in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Now Fibrominn, which later became Benson Power, is gradually being deconstructed by St. Michael firm Rachel Contracting. A friend told us he had talked with one of the workers who said it was the newest building he had ever torn down. The 55-megawatt power plant fueled by turkey litter and wood chips couldn’t compete on the open energy market.

New drilling technology and methods, along with the discovery of vast oil reserves in the Bakken Oil Field in northwestern North Dakota, have made America one of the world’s largest producers of oil. Natural gas supplies, once tight, are now abundant.

Technological evolution and innovation have made solar and wind a rapidly growing source of power for energy companies, making biomass obsolete and far too expensive as a source to generate electricity.

At the 2005 groundbreaking for the plant then Gov. Tim Pawlenty praised Benson and Fibrominn.

“In the days of the California gold rush they used to say, ‘There is gold in them thar hills,’” he told the crowd. “Today we are saying there is gold in that thar manure.”

“We are so glad that you are gathered here today along with guests from Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi, from countries around the world, France, Spain and the U.K. and many other places to help celebrate and acknowledge the formal groundbreaking and opening of this fantastic facility.

 “This plant is a world-leading, cutting-edge technologically advanced example of not just biomass energy, but some of the best thinking, the best technology, and best leadership the world has to offer and it is right here in Benson, Minnesota, and that is wonderful,” Pawlenty said.

At the May 2007 dedication of the plant, U.S. 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson also had high praise for the community.

“There is a long tradition in this part of the world of progressive politics and progressive leaders. It is appropriate that this would be the place where we would have this kind of revolution. You have the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company (CVEC) across the road that is doing some tremendous stuff in getting to the front of moving to cellulosic ethanol using biomass for synfuel. I am so proud of this area’s…leaders,” he told the crowd.

When he served in the U.S. Senate, Norm Coleman made an effort to visit all 87 Minnesota counties. In December 2007, he came to Benson.

“I saved the best for last,” Coleman told a small crowd gathered in the Benson City Council chambers. “Benson is a pretty remarkable town. Here in the heartland of western Minnesota, you are at the forefront of energy innovation.

 “We started with ethanol, that provided the foundation and educated folks about the opportunity that can be created with alternative energy,” Coleman said.  “Ethanol is still the mainstay. But now we have turkey litter and biomass, and we will be unleashing the potential of cellulosic (fuel production) at some point.”

Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) estimated Fibrominn would bring $8 to $10 million in annual economic activity to the community.

We weren’t alone in seeking the Fibrominn plant. More than 30 other Minnesota communities were also doing their best to be the site of the plant. Benson won the competition due to its extraordinary leadership on the council and its staff.

For us, the demolition of Fibrominn is bittersweet.

We made two trips to England to view, and smell, the proposed Fibrominn plant for Benson. The overwhelming concern was that it would stink up the town and be just the opposite of the economic development stimulus our community was seeking. We talked to the people in Thetford and Croxton; both close to the Thetford Fibrowatt plant that was burning poultry litter to create electricity.  We met with the local newspaper editor of the Thetford Times. We wandered the streets of downtown Thetford, along with other representatives of Benson and Swift County, talking with local people about the impact of the plant on their community.

What our experiences told us was that the plant would not smell and that it would provide new jobs along with a substantial boost to our tax base.

In his speech to Benson, Gov. Pawlenty also quoted futurist Peter Drucker who said, “The things that got us here will not get us there.”

He went on to say, “Drucker said the best way to predict the future is to go out and invent it yourself. There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. So the town of Benson and its partners, and this region are seizing the future, inventing it themselves. Rather than have events and circumstances just come and plow into them, they are creating a future that is forward-looking, that has momentum, that brings capital investment and jobs to greater Minnesota which are desperately needed.”

Pawlenty’s quoting of Drucker was unintentionally prescient in that he would have never suspected that Fibrominn’s time would end so soon.

Benson is receiving $20 million from Xcel Energy over four years with $10.5 million already in the bank to pursue its next innovative economic development project. It’s compensation for the early closing of the power plant that was contracted to run through 2028.

Brightmark Energy might be part of Benson’s future. Whether it is or not, the community must keep moving forward. We’ve made strides with having economic development specialist Doug Griffiths come to Benson, with a greater investment in economic development planning staff, and with a three-day community strategy session involving community leaders that laid out priorities and plans for pursuing future opportunities.

Our challenge is to keep the momentum alive.

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