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Bush Will Highlight St. Paul District Heating Plant
By William Wilcoxen
Minnesota Public Radio
May 16, 2001
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President George W. Bush will focus on energy when he visits St. Paul this week. The president is scheduled to make a speech on energy policy to an invitation-only audience of Twin Cities business leaders. President Bush will also tour the plant that heats and cools most of the buildings in downtown St. Paul. Here's a look at what the president will see.

The District Energy plant on Kellogg Blvd., next to the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. Right now it burns mainly coal, providing heating to 75 buildings downtown. President Bush will tour the plant during his visit this week. More information at
(MPR Photo/Melanie Sommer)
MAYOR NORM COLEMAN WILL SERVE AS TOUR GUIDE during the President's St. Paul visit. Coleman already has his patter ready.

"We're doing wonderful things here. District Energy is doing some co-generation using wood and natural resources there to generate electricity. When electric prices and utility prices were soaring this winter, in downtown St. Paul they were kept relatively low by the stuff we have here," says Coleman.

What St. Paul has - at the foot of the downtown Mississippi River bluff - is hot water. Water heated by the boilers at District Energy's plant flows through a network of underground pipes to warm 75 percent of the buildings downtown. The same water is then piped back to the plant, where it is reheated and pumped back out to keep downtown workers and residents warm. In the summer, District Energy's companion agency, District Cooling, does the same thing with chilled water to supply most downtown air conditioning systems. Company president Anders Rydaker says District Energy's current system is much more efficient than the steam-powered predecessor that used the plant until 1983.

"We're actually serving 25 million square feet of building space with the same amount of fuel that was used in the '70s. So we have doubled the efficiency from what it was at that time," says Rydaker.

Currently, the boilers heating District Energy's water burn coal, supplemented with waste wood. The system is flexible enough that it can also heat with oil or natural gas. But the company will soon begin a conversion to a wood-fueled boiler that will generate both heat and electricity. In this co-generation project, the boiler produces steam that's run through a turbine to generate the electricity. The electricity will be sold to Xcel Energy, which will distribute it from its nearby plant. Rydaker says in most electrical plants, leftover steam floats out a smokestack. But in this case District Energy will capture it and convert it to water to be piped through the downtown heating system.

Old fuel, coal, sits next to new fuel, wood chips, outside the District Energy plant. Officials plan to expand the plant over the next year, and transform it into a co-generation facility which would use waste wood as fuel.
(MPR Photo/Melanie Sommer)
"If you produce electricity in a coal-fired power plant, for example, the efficiency from the fuel to the electricity that you can use is only in the range of 30 to 33 percent. So, almost 70 percent goes to waste from the energy in the fuel. With the combined heat and power, we can more than double that efficiency up to 75 percent. It's a much, much more effecient operation," Rydaker says.

The new boiler will burn about 275,000 tons of wood per year, which Rydaker says is less than half the waste wood generated annually in the Twin Cities area. He says having a stable, local fuel source will keep heating costs low for downtown businesses. That's been one of St. Paul's selling points in attracting new employers. District Energy plans to keep its existing boilers to supplement and back up the new wood-burning - or "biomass" - plant. But Rydaker says the conversion will make for a cleaner plant, reducing the use of coal by 80 percent.

The one complaint some St. Paulites have raised about District Energy's planned conversion, is that the new boiler will be even larger than the existing ones. It will make the plant a more imposing industrial presence on a downtown riverfront the city has been trying to beautify. Erich Mische, the executive director of St. Paul's convention and arena complex, sits on District Energy's board of directors. He says ongoing talks about the new plant's design are aimed at coming up with something fitting as gracefully as possible into the river bluff and the buildings around it. Mische says design modifications could drive up the $52 million cost of the project, which will be paid by District Energy.

"That's a parallel discussion that's going on within District Energy - how do you facilitate a design that's going to be sensitive to the river bluff, and at the same time create a business plan that allows you to recoup that investment over a reasonable period of time," Mische says.

District Energy's timeline calls for it to begin generating electricity by the end of next year.