USDA grant to study waste power plant in Minnesota

A proposed plan by Xcel Energy to retire two of three coal-fired power generating units at the Sherburne County Generating Station (SHERCO) in Becker sometime around 2023, may leave a significant hole in the city’s long-term economic development plans.

As the largest coal-fired power plant in the upper Midwest, the SHERCO power plant drives more than 70 percent of Becker’s tax levy and employs nearly 350 people.

But new plans have emerged that may salvage jobs and tax revenue alike, thanks to a partnership between the city of Becker, Minn., Wenck and Vonco USA. The partnership successfully secured a USDA Rural Business Development Grant which will fund a feasibility study to evaluate building a new plant in Becker to convert organic waste into renewable transportation fuel. Potential plant sites under consideration include the Becker Industrial Park and the Vonco II landfill, among others.

“Rural small businesses have a significant influence on the economic success of rural America,” said Minnesota State Director for USDA Rural Development Colleen Landkamer. “This funding is just one of the many steps USDA has taken to promote economic development, encourage job creation, and support infrastructure in rural communities.”

Economic development topics to be evaluated under the study include financial augmentation for existing businesses, new employment opportunities, and industry diversification.

“Vonco is excited to be a part of the feasibility study, as we believe the results will help guide the development of landfill alternative technologies that are at the forefront of future development plans for our company to remain a steward of the environment in our community,” said Vonco USA President Ian Vagle.

Becker City Administrator Greg Pruszinske said the city is committed to creating a prosperous local and regional economy by encouraging sustainable ventures that would result in job growth.

“This feasibility study is the first step in building a large scale biofuels plant in Becker,” Pruszinske said. “It’s also our next step to create a sustainable community while capitalizing on the assets we currently have in place.”

The changes at the SHERCO site are the result of Xcel Energy’s proposal to the Public Utilities Commission to replace existing generating capacity with a new natural-gas combined cycle unit and solar installation, which will require only a fraction of the labor to operate. It is anticipated about 150 full-time jobs at the plant may be lost as a result of the unit shut-down.

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