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GRE announces biorefinery plans

Great River Energy unveiled plans Wednesday in Jamestown for a first-of-its-kind $300 million biorefinery near its power plant, Spiritwood Station, 10 miles east of the city.

The biorefinery is expected to go online with the production of cellulosic ethanol, primarily using wheat straw, by 2015. GRE is the developer and a Danish company, Inbicon, will provide the cellulosic ethanol technology. GRE is still looking for an operator for the biorefinery, which will be called Dakota Spirit AgEnergy LLC.

Spiritwood Station, GRE's 99 megawatt coal-fired power plant, is still under construction. It is expected to be generating electricity by fall. Speaking on "Biomass: where ag meets energy" at an Ag Week luncheon, Sandra Broekema, GRE's manager of business development, said it's only a matter of time before coal-fired power plants will have to reduce their carbon footprint. Using biomass will help reduce that footprint.

"Coal-fired plants produce twice the carbon emissions than natural gas," she said. "Biomass is carbon neutral and can help mitigate the cost of carbon."

GRE is planning to eventually convert to 10 percent biomass in its coal-fired steam generation of electricity. But for now it's increasing the efficiency of Spiritwood Station by providing its waste steam to Cargill Malt and the Dakota Spirit AgEnergy biorefinery.

GRE has been looking for a second steam host since a proposed corn ethanol plant didn't make it past the planning stage. Broekema said the best use of that steam is in energy-intensive businesses.

The byproducts of producing cellulosic ethanol are C5 molasses, a food for livestock, and purified lignin pellets, which is a solid fuel. Broekema said Spiritwood Station would use the lignin as a biomass addition to its fuel.

"Lignin makes it easier to fire coal," she said, thus increasing the plant's efficiency.

Project development and feasibility studies are under way now. Broekema said a 20-million-gallon biorefinery would need 480,000 tons of crop residue, mostly wheat straw and/or corn stover a year from a 70-mile radius. Huge bales would need to be trucked in seven days a week.

"We need a huge input of biomass, primarily wheat straw, right now," she said. Inbicon's technology is based on wheat straw, but Broekema said the company is researching other crops. "This is an area that is blessed with abundant crop residue."

The biorefinery would take only half the biomass from the field as farmers use the crop residue as fertilizer. Eventually, Broekema said, almost any recently living animal or vegetable matter could be used as biomass. It's also a renewable resource. She said dedicated energy crops such as hybrid poplars, switchgrass and algae are one source. And as the technology develops, animal waste and byproducts such as manure, municipal garbage -- yard and food waste -- and recycled cooking oils would also be useable biomass.

Next year, GRE expects to begin the preliminary engineering design and financing work. Broekema said they'll be looking into federal and state grants as well as equity partners.

"We're taking a cooperative approach on the financing," she said. "At the front end the capital investment is 10 times more than a traditional ethanol plant."

The Jamestown/Stutsman Development Corp. will be "an upfront equity partner in the biorefinery," its CEO, Connie Ova, said. "This will have a huge economic impact on this area."

The refinery will employ 57 in full-time equivalent positions. Another 25 FTEs would be seasonal. Their job would be harvesting, collecting, storing and transporting crop residue.

Depending on how the crop residue portion works out, farmers could also see a benefit, Ova said. She added the JSDC is partnering with ag agencies "to get the word out to farmers that this could be another revenue source."

"With less interest in row crops like corn and sunflowers, we may see more interest in small grains," she said. "If the money is there they'll grow it."

Adjacent businesses will also develop. JSDC owns 100 acres in that area and is looking to attract another business or two.

"There will still be an excess of steam available for other businesses," Ova said.

Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at