Senator tours energy hubs in Elk River

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

At the start of a holiday week’s recess from meetings and other business at the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., came to Elk River early during a vacation in his state to see and learn more about what is still making this city “Energy City.”

Tom Sagstetter and Sen. Al Franken walk and talk past control panels at the landfill-gas-to-energy plant.

Tom Sagstetter and Sen. Al Franken walk and talk past control panels at the landfill-gas-to-energy plant.

After starting Saturday, June 29, with a stop in St. Cloud, the senator and some staff continued across central Minnesota first by visiting the landfill-gas-to-electric generation plant and environmental learning center, at Highway 169 and 221st Avenue in Elk River.

Franken stepped inside the classroom, like countless school children and other guests have done, and sat at the room’s conference table, resting his arms on the top, hard surface that was compressed and created from recycled newspapers. Outside, the plant’s generators continued converting landfill gases – including 52 percent methane, 40 percent carbon dioxide – into electricity that equals 25 million kilowatt hours annually to meet some of the city’s needs.

“This is one of the cheapest sources of energy,” noted Franken, who chairs the Senate energy subcommittee.

The senator’s hosts in the classroom, including Rebecca Haug, environmental administrator for the city of Elk River, shared some of what they have repeated during other times of the year for visiting students from elementary schools.

Tom Sagstetter of Elk River Municipal Utilities guided Sen. Al Franken through pedaling a bicycle, in the environmental learning center at the Elk River Landfill, in a demonstration to show how each of the light bulbs would need to illuminate for generation of real power. “The moral of that story is, it takes a lot of energy to make energy,” Sagstetter said.

Tom Sagstetter of Elk River Municipal Utilities guided Sen. Al Franken through pedaling a bicycle, in the environmental learning center at the Elk River Landfill, in a demonstration to show how each of the light bulbs would need to illuminate for generation of real power. “The moral of that story is, it takes a lot of energy to make energy,” Sagstetter said.

As they have more options for electronic fun than the senator may have had in his youth, the school groups are told that they could not believe how much money they would save from their household electric bills by shutting off any video game systems along with the monitors between uses, as opposed to leaving those systems humming. Their young eyes widen, according to the hosts, when the children learn the savings could buy more gadgets or even pay for fun family trips away from their homes.

Franken replied that adults still get lectured. The senator said as he had his own home, he could still count on a stern comment from his father during visits. Franken’s father often asked who received and paid the electric bills in the senator’s home.

“‘I was wondering,’” the senator recalled his father saying, “‘because you left a light on in the living room.’”

The classroom hosts said other groups visit the plant in the summer and throughout the year. The Elk River area procedures for turning trash and organic waste into power may be innovative for Minnesota and much of the United States, but nothing new compared with technologies in use in other countries.

A group from Germany had visited the Elk River Landfill and learning center, Franken heard from his hosts, and though those guests were pleased by the tour and hospitality, they were not surprised or uneducated about what they were hearing.

Haug said, “They were asking what we were going to do next year to keep up with them.”

The senator brought his wit into the classroom, and replied to Haug’s story: “All they did was taunt you. That’s the Germans.”

Franken’s two-hour tour continued with stops at the Great River Energy processing plant on 165th Avenue in Elk River, where waste from Sherburne, Anoka and Hennepin counties is brought daily for sorting and conversion to a “refuse-driven fuel,” or RDF. That material gets burned into energy at the Great River Energy recovery station, on Highway 10, where the senator ended his visit in Elk River.

Haug told the Star News after Franken’s visit that local officials believe he heard good news to bring back to the Capitol, where business is slated to resume July 8.

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