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This is a story of loggers, an energy company and turkey droppings — and a dispute that’s putting a dent in Minnesota’s Thanksgiving.
The company, Xcel Energy, wants to stop buying energy from three biofuel plants in Minnesota, one that runs on wood and turkey droppings and two others that run on wood only. The loggers, who risk losing their jobs, and turkey farmers, who would be left with a whole lot of surplus bird poop, are not happy.
Xcel says the energy it buys from the plants is too expensive. It wants to buy and shut down one plant and terminate contracts with the two others. Energy from the biomass plants costs 10 times more than wind-generated power, the utility estimates, and ditching them could save customers nearly $700 million over the next 11 years.
Loggers and truckers are suing Xcel in an effort to save the plants.
They say Xcel’s plan violates past agreements. The plants support at least 100 jobs, the loggers and truckers say, and bolster the state’s commitment to renewable energy. And without the biomass plants, Minnesota’s forests would be cluttered with damaged or low-grade trees for which there is little other use, decreasing the health of woodlands and increasing the risk of forest fires.
As for the farmers who send turkey droppings to the biomass incinerator, they would be stuck with an estimated 250,000 tons of turkey excrement per year.
“Xcel Energy has really left us with no choice,” said Scott Dane, who heads the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota, a forestry industry group. The organization filed a lawsuit in Cass County Court last week.
“Turkey litter is a good fuel. It’s a valuable resource,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, which is not part of the legal action but supports the lawsuit. “Given how quickly this is happening, it’s going to be difficult for local farmers to find other users.”
The feud’s origins lie in a 1994 agreement between Minnesota and Xcel’s predecessor, Northern States Power. The state agreed to let the company expand a nuclear waste storage site in return for a promise by the utility to generate or purchase power from wind and biomass plants.
But after Xcel complained of high costs, the state passed a bill that allowed the utility to buy out its purchase agreements — though any changes must still get approval from regulators.
Xcel declined to comment on the lawsuit. But in a statement, it said it was “committed to delivering clean, renewable energy at a low cost.”
The dispute highlights the divergent fortunes of renewables like wind, solar and biomass. A dramatic fall in the costs of wind and solar power has driven strong growth in those sectors; biomass, however, has struggled.
Scientists have also raised questions about the ecological footprint of biomass and biofuels, which emit carbon dioxide when they are burned.
Biomass just hasn’t attracted the level of attention or investment of other renewables, said Logan O’Grady of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, an industry-led nonprofit group.
Turkey droppings are “not as sexy,” he said.