BENSON -- Even as more than 250 dignitaries and guests gathered Friday to celebrate the grand opening of Fibrominn, the trucks delivering the poultry litter to fuel the 55-megawatt electric power plant kept rolling in and out of the facility on the west side of Benson.
"There's gold in that there turkey manure," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "On behalf of Minnesota, we are very proud of this facility. You are turning something no one wants into something that everyone needs."
Pawlenty was accompanied by a host of state legislators, state officials and turkey industry leaders who marked the grand opening of the plant, the first in the nation to use renewable turkey litter to generate electricity. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., touted Minnesota's long tradition of progressive politics for creating the appropriate place for the renewable energy revolution.
"This is not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue," Peterson said. "This is the right thing to do for the country."
Peterson, who serves as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee and key author of the House version of the new farm bill, says his leadership is enhanced by the state's position as a renewable energy leader. He says the 15 percent renewable energy standard included in the House farm bill stands a good chance of passing as the Senate takes up debate of its version of the legislation.
"The public is behind us," he said. "These things work."
Nine years in the making
It was the summer of 1998 and third-generation poultry farmer Greg Langmo, of Litchfield, was just one of many producers facing a "cloud of uncertainty" created by fiery discussions about the future of Minnesota's livestock industry.
Rapid changes in the poultry, swine and dairy industries had brought counties and even townships into the debate about new state feedlot regulations.
It was Meeker County Commissioner Dave Gabrielson who pushed Langmo and his fellow poultry producers to find another use -- other than land application -- for poultry litter.
"The challenge was laid at the feet of the poultry industry," said Langmo, who now serves as Fibrominn's fuel manager. "It was life altering."
In an agricultural trade publication, Langmo read about the Fibrowatt company in England and called Rupert Fraser, who with his father Simon, developed the method to burn poultry litter for power and built three power plants over there. Then, Langmo started pushing state and federal legislators to help pave the way for Minnesota's own poultry power plant.
That effort was not lost on Peterson, who represents Minnesota's 7th District.
"I don't know how many times Greg Langmo bugged me," Peterson said. "He was not going to shut up or give up."
The policy behind the plant
The power from the plant will be purchased by Xcel Energy under a 21-year contract. The 55 megawatts is a portion of the renewable energy required to be purchased by Xcel under a 1997 renewable energy mandate from the state. Poultry litter as a renewable energy source was approved by the state in 2000. In 2001, the state Legislature approved exempting Fibrominn from paying utility personal property taxes, which will save an estimated $1.1 million annually.
After considering several locations across west central Minnesota, Fibrominn officials chose Benson in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, Fibrominn officials worked to get permits, legislative approval, a site, an agreement from Xcel and financing to make the project possible.
In December 2004, the company secured the $202 million in financing for the plant and contracted with a Canadian company to build the facility.
In July 2005, Pawlenty touted Minnesota as the "Saudi Arabia of renewable fuels" during the groundbreaking for the plant. Structural steel construction began in October 2005, launching a 30-month build process.
The plant has already run at full operation, but is going to be shut down this weekend for maintenance, according to plant manager Jack Jones.
The shutdown, which will happen four times a year for maintenance, will be used to address follow-up construction issues that aren't uncommon.
Jones, who has been involved with other plant startups, says the launch of the plant has been better than expected. The plant started test-firing in March and electrical production in June.
"We have had it at high capacity in the first months," he said. "That's a good indication of coming production."
The North American Fertilizer LLC plant next to the power plant is receiving and reconditioning the ash generated by Fibrominn. The conveyor system between the plants is complete, but North American officials are still working with a contractor to address the noise of the conveyor.
That work could be complete yet this fall, Jones said.
Forward thinking leadership
Fraser, who guided Pawlenty and other elected officials on the first tour of the facility, thanked Langmo and many others, including Benson's leaders and citizens, for being forward-thinking and helping the company through the long process to Friday's grand opening.
"I feel like an Oscar winner," Fraser said. "So many people put in so much hard work. They were very forward thinking. We owe them a thank you."
Paul Kittelson, Benson's mayor, recalled that Sue Pirsig, then the Swift County Economic Development Authority director, first told him about a "crazy farmer from Litchfield" and "British folks" and "burning turkey poop for electricity."
The town, he said, built a team that made the project happen. First, they sent two individuals to scout out the British plants. They returned with glowing reports, and the City Council members traveled to England to see and try to smell the litter-fueled plants for themselves.
"We drove around in buses, doing the sniff test," he said. "Everything was as they said it was. Fibrominn is a class act. From the beginning, they have been a transparent and open company."