Is it nerdy to care about renewable energy? Since I was wearing safety goggles and a canary-yellow hardhat a few hours ago, perhaps I’m not the best judge. I don’t understand words like biomass, but I like the idea of green anything, so this morning I tagged along on a hardhat tour of a 1905 power plant that—get this—heats most of downtown St. Paul with wood chips. Fifty truckloads a day of lawn trimmings, and boom: plenty of hot water, cold water, and heat all year long.
For the bargain price of $1, a power company bought the riverfront plant in the 1980s, hoping to provide heat and electricity to the adjacent downtown via 20 miles of pipe. Standing in the rattle and hum of the cathedral-like space, our group learned that we’re not the first to tour the grounds. “We’re really a model for a lot of other cities who have the same infrastructure,” said our tall tour guide, Michael Burns, vice president of Operations at District Energy St. Paul, Inc. “We have people from all over the world who visit and want to learn all about what we do here.”
You’d think the Twin Cities would have only one power plant that uses alternative fuel sources, but no. Our group piled on a bus to Minneapolis to see a 1903 National Register-listed plant at the University of Minnesota. Thanks to the nearby Cheerios factory, the plant burns oat husks (which make for a fermented stench, sorry to say) to create some of its energy. Cheerios and wood, go figure. This gorgeous building, right on the river, was in such bad shape that chicken wire was holding up parts of its brick façade. Now it’s a buzzing, state-of-the-art power plant, complete with a control room just like Homer Simpson’s office.
Wearing hardhats and orange earplugs, our group inched along steel catwalks 120 feet above the ground. On the dizzying staircase down, I tried to ignore my lurching stomach and gripped the handrails like the sissy I am. Next time I’ll take the elevator.