The Rock-Tenn fuel question looks muddier after a May 29 community forum held at Hamline University. About 90 people turned out to hear the company’s plans to replace the steam heat they will lose this year to power their paper recycling operation.
The forum was organized by Rock-Tenn Interested Neighbors, a coalition of community councils representing the neighborhoods surrounding the Midway area facility. The main purpose of the forum was to report on a recent study conducted by the Green Institute of Minneapolis evaluating the feasibility of biomass as a fuel source for Rock-Tenn’s operation.
According to the Green Institute’s Carl Nelson, Rock-Tenn’s steam needs are considerable. Nelson said the plant requires enough thermal energy to heat 20 percent of the entire city of St. Paul.
Currently that energy is generated at Excel Energy’s High Bridge power plant and comes to Rock-Tenn in the form of piped-in steam. That source will disappear this year as the High Bridge plant is converted from coal to natural gas.
Rock-Tenn has its own burners on site and is currently equipped and licensed to burn fuel oil and natural gas. Those burners have been used as a back-up, but starting this fall they will be used to supply all the plant’s energy needs.
The company would like to find a long-term alternative to carbon-based fuel, and that desire prompted the Green Institute study. Based on the study’s findings, though, biomass doesn’t appear to be the magic bullet.
“No ‘cheap biomass’ is available that will beat natural gas prices long term,” said Nelson. He said they considered six forms of biomass — urban wood waste, forest residue, agricultural milling residue (e.g., oat hulls), crop residue (e.g., corn stalks) and dedicated crops (e.g., grasses) — and concluded that none would provide much more than 50 percent of Rock-Tenn’s energy needs.
Nelson said that nonfuel costs — building and managing a plant, transporting materials, disposing of ash — are higher than actual fuel costs for any form of biomass. He said another factor the study considered was the long-term stability of markets for biomass.
“Currently, there is competition for many of these materials, and we expect that competition to increase,” he said.
Another consideration with biomass is the sheer volume of material a Rock-Tenn power plant would need. Nelson said such a facility would require about 10,000 semitrailers a year of biomass.
Another potential fuel source for Rock-Tenn is refuse-derived fuel (RDF), but no one at the May 29 forum expressed much enthusiasm for that option.
Sen. Ellen Anderson, who sponsored a recently passed bill (SF 2096) that dedicates $4.5 million to the St. Paul Port Authority to study Rock-Tenn’s energy needs, said the bill specifically excludes untreated mixed municipal waste but does not exclude RDF, which is waste that has been shredded and processed into pellets for burning. She said that RDF was not excluded in the bill because some legislators believe that fuel source needs more study.
During the question-and-answer part of the forum, several citizens spoke against an RDF burner, and it’s clear that such a facility would face stiff public pressure. Indeed, a group of area residents, Neighbors Against the Burner, has been formed. They held a June 19 public meeting at Macalester College.
According to Ken Smith, from District Energy of St. Paul, studies about the fuel mix and plant configuration at the Rock-Tenn site will be completed by the end of the year. The environmental review process will begin in 2008. Air permits and financing arrangements are expected to be completed by 2009. Design and construction would begin at that point, and the new facility would be ready to begin operation sometime in 2011.
More immediately, a group will be formed to assure continuing citizen representation in discussions about Rock-Tenn’s energy future. The Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel will meet monthly and will include members from four St. Paul district councils (11, 12, 13 and 14), the city of St. Paul, District Energy, the St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, the St. Paul and Midway chambers of commerce, and four at-large representatives.