Against the Grain

Alfalfa electricity? Northern States Power planted the idea, Minnesota farmers grew it, and a bitter tug-of-war chopped it down.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Chris Hanson was skeptical. Max DeLong, a senior engineer at Northern States Power Company, and a cadre of DeLong's colleagues had come to him inquiring about various crops being grown around the state--and the possibilities of pinpointing one that could be developed for purposes that sounded more like science fiction than farming. They wanted to take plants and turn them into electricity. Hanson's sense of the ideas presented by NSP at that spring 1993 meeting was simple: "I thought they were goofy."

On this late summer day six years later, Hanson sits in his office high on a hill at the University of Minnesota's College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences, remembering that first discussion. His job for the past decade as head of the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products has been to devote school funds to developing projects that might help Minnesota's farmers delve into new markets. Pulling out a map, he points to the southern west and central regions where NSP--the state's electric company--first proposed to cultivate this kinetic crop.

"What could you grow in Minnesota that you can turn into energy that would make sense?" Hanson poses the question he debated at length with a handful of professors and agronomists at the U of M during the summer and fall of 1993. "The answer was, there was nothing you could grow in Minnesota that you could turn into energy that would make economic sense for farmers." Unless, the group had concluded, there was a co-product, another element of the crop that could be utilized just for the purpose in mind. "What crop can you use that would have multiple uses? That led us pretty quickly to alfalfa.

"The valuable part of alfalfa is the leaf," Hanson explains. "That's where the protein is, by and large." But if there were a way to separate the leaf--grind it up and use it as feed for dairy and beef cows--and then turn the stem into a power source, well, using alfalfa to generate electricity would be more than possible; it would be ideal.

Hanson gazes into the distance beyond his office window, at the university's experimental fields near the state fairgrounds in St. Paul, where tall corn, short corn, and every kind of soybean laze along dusty pathways in the summer sun. There are probably a couple of varieties of alfalfa popping up out there, he muses. With the patience of a hobby gardener and the methodical vision of a would-be landscape artist, Hanson describes how the idea of alfalfa-electricity came together.

With the financial backing of NSP and the U of M, Hanson and his colleagues set about studying the plant's prospects. Where would it grow? How would it be harvested? Would farmers be interested in growing it as a big commercial crop? Could the stems be converted easily into a gas able to power turbines and make electricity?

As part of their study, in 1994 Hanson's team took a truck filled with finely chopped alfalfa stems to a testing site at the Institute of Gas Technology on the outskirts of Chicago. To save money they were piggybacking on a similar test being conducted on sugar cane. The alfalfa, it turned out, was the superior fuel source. Popped into a heated, pressurized "giant thermos bottle" called a gasifier, 98 percent of the alfalfa turned readily into gas form, ready to make electricity. It had worked.

By then Hanson was determined to bolster the effort. The university was prepared to invest more than $1 million, and Hanson himself was toiling long hours to get the project on its feet. "We were obviously pretty big believers it could be done," he recalls. "Alfalfa is a great plant."

As a biomass project (one that develops energy from crops and organic material) the alfalfa plan was quickly turning into the darling of renewable-energy consortia around the nation, and even the U.S. Department of Energy had come aboard with enthusiasm. "They said, 'We love you, you're the best project we've seen.' We were widely viewed as the number one project for renewables in the country," Hanson remembers, a bit wistfully.

The concept, backed by the results of the gasifier tests, was catching fire. Early on, the U of M and NSP had managed to cobble together a group of interested farmers from around Granite Falls who were willing to grow enough alfalfa to power a plant--the first of its kind in the world. Months later these growers had formed a cooperative and invested millions of dollars in exploring alfalfa-electricity as a new market. Local environmentalists, too, seemed thrilled; after years of lobbying state and private agencies, they believed they'd finally come across a biomass scheme that would light a fuse under the renewable-energy industry in Minnesota--one capable of providing power without pollution or reliance on fossil fuels. The idea was exciting businesses and government agencies as well, which professed their eagerness to help get an alfalfa plant up and running. And, NSP believed, alfalfa power would solve a pressing problem: In 1994 the utility had been handed a legislative mandate to provide electricity from renewable sources.

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