Day 100 - District Energy St Paul
When President George W. Bush delivered his first major energy policy address in 2001, he chose District Energy in St. Paul as the backdrop. Praising the private non-profit corporation as “a model of energy efficiency”, the President also emphasized its energy diversity.
“It uses conventional fuels like oil and natural gas and coal, and renewable fuels like wood chips. And the plant is a model of affordability. While other energy prices rise, District Energy has not raised its heating and cooling rates in four years”.
Minnesotans have to contend with warm, humid summers and chillingly cold winters. When the energy crisis hit in the 1970’s, the St. Paul city fathers scanned the world for sustainable energy solutions. Their eyes fell on the progressive district energy generation in the Swedish university town of Uppsala. Their next move was to give the head of Uppsala Energy Hans Nyman an offer he could not refuse. Transplanted to the U.S. state with the largest proportion of people with a Swedish heritage, Nyman set up District Energy St. Paul Inc. to develop, construct and operate an environmentally sound hot water district heating system to serve downtown St. Paul’s central business district and adjacent areas.
Hans Nyman passed away in 1993 and was succeeded by Anders Rydåker also from Uppsala. He is now CEO of District Heating and the head of District Cooling and the Market Street Energy Company. District Cooling supplies chilled water for the air conditioning systems in downtown buildings, and the Market Street Energy Company developed and now operates the largest wood-fired district energy system in the United States.
America has an abundance of coal. This provides 75% of Minnesota’s electricity. Nuclear power (17%) and hydro electric power (3%) come next, and even though Minnesota is a leader in the U.S. in the use of wind power, this source provides less than one percent of the electricity generation. Natural gas (1%) has become the predominant fuel for new electricity generating plants. The new Market Street plant, that can use coal, gas or oil, however, relies on wood waste for 80% of its energy. Each year 275,000 tons of wood waste, that until now has been deposited in landfills or burned openly, is put to good use at a relatively low cost. The co-generation system produces 25 megawatt of electricity (that is enough to heat 20,000 homes) and sufficient thermal energy to heat some 450 commercial, industrial and residential buildings in downtown St. Paul. An added bonus was that the new plant also meant a facelift for the Mississippi riverfront.
“By using chipped tree trimmings to generate electricity we greatly reduce our burning of coal and oil, says Anders Rydåker. “This will significantly cut air emissions and reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. And, this process can operate at more than double the efficiency of commercial electricity-only power plants, resulting in twice the useful end-energy for the same raw energy input.”
Ever-growing evidence of global warming from emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) has focused international attention on solving what may be the greatest economic and environmental challenge of this millennium. Most people assume that a reduction in CO2 emissions results in higher energy costs and consequently slower economic growth, but the Market Street plant has proved that cost savings and dramatic reductions in CO2 can be achieved simultaneously. Unlike the combustion process involving coal and oil, the burning of wood (that is an environ-mentally neutral event only involving the harmless gases emitted during the natural decaying process when wood is left to rot) will actually reduce greenhouse gases by more than 280,000 tons annually.
Physically District Energy is a 23 million-square-foot fuel purchasing collective. A staff of 25 run the corporation together with District Cooling that has a 100% and 99,98% reliability rating respectively. When cold weather and a low natural gas storage rate bumped up gas heating rates by 125% in 2001, District Energy did not raise its prices as the company could shift to the most economical fuel source. District Cooling customers even got a 5% energy rebate thanks to efficient plant operating practices. If District Energy is the “early look at the future” as cited by President Bush, there is hope for consumers elsewhere in North America facing skyrocketing energy bills.