Students shine green light on garbage burner


Starting in April 2010, Minnesota Twins fans for the first time in decades will get to experience the sights of outdoor baseball.

The open sky, pennants rippling in the breeze, the natural green grass, and … the smokestacks of a giant garbage incinerator?

The Hennepin County Energy Recovery Center, or HERC, is a just a long foul ball from the new stadium site. The facility burns household trash to power steam turbines, which generate electricity for about 26,000 homes. Most of what comes out of the smokestacks is steam, an official said, and the emissions don’t pose a health risk to fans.

The county, the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, and a student group called Greenlight are working together to educate the public about the HERC, as well as brainstorm ways to spiff up its appearance a bit before fans by the thousands start descending on the site 82 days a year.

The burner is co-owned by the county and a company called Covanta Energy Corporation, which owns and operates waste-to-energy power plants around the world.

“We need to respond to real concerns, not preconceptions,” said Sarah Wolbert, a member of Greenlight, an organization for aspiring architects.

The group’s suggestions don’t result in a total body make-over, but they think it might be enough to improve perceptions of the plant. Its ideas are aesthetic and functional. On involves incorporating natural lighting such as skylights in the main room of the plant, where trucks dump the waste they collect. The roof of the building needs replacing, and skylights are energy efficient and practical for such a space, the students said.

Because this is a student exercise, the aspiring young architects themselves cannot actually put any design into effect, but they sure have got people interested and some ideas may be implemented.

Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design, is in charge of this year’s Greenlight event.

“Greenlight is a student group, and they focus on one project a year,” Fisher said. “This year the project is the HERC burner.”

The students visited HERC to learn how it works before they brainstormed ways to improve its appearance. Most were impressed with the plant and irked about the massive amounts of packaging and other garbage that overflows from trash bins around and off campus that is never recycled.

According to Greenlight, the average American produces 4.4 pounds of garbage every day, which adds up to one ton or 1600 pounds of waste every year.

Carl Michaud, who works for Hennepin County’s Department of Environmental Services, said the county measured the concentration of chemicals in this steam and found it safe for all fans, staff and players at the ballpark. In June 2007, it released an environmental impact statement that concluded, “Health risks associated with HERC emissions are below EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) levels of concern.”

Michaud said Minnesotans recycle 46 percent of waste, burn 35 percent, and ship the rest to a landfill. Landfills are the most inefficient way of getting rid of waste and they are running out of space. Minnesota has established a goal to raise the percentage of recycling to 50 percent. Already, all tires in Minnesota are recycled, and HERC sorts metal for recycling during the waste processing. “The waste just doesn’t stop; it keeps coming,” Michaud said.

The Twins stadium inadvertently brought to light an issue that Americans, generally, like to ignore – waste. In this case, the most important thing is to make sure the fans and players won’t notice the waste; they have a game to enjoy.