Alfalfa power returns to co-op’s sights

The 140 alfalfa growers in western Minnesota who remain in a 16-year-old cooperative are trying again to get into the biofuel business. They say they could have a fuel-producing plant up in three months.

The Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers (MnVAP) crashed and burned in the 1990s, failing to make work an ambitious plan to generate 75 megawatts of electricity for then-Northern States Power by burning a product made from alfalfa stems in a plant near Granite Falls.

The original membership of more than 300 farmers has dwindled, although the Priam-based organization has stayed in the relatively low-revenue business of pelletizing alfalfa to create a transportable animal feed.

But now, says co-op member and project manager Keith Poier, “We’re looking at getting back into the biofuels business but a little smarter this time.”

The plans are less ambitious, but Poier said MnVAP is working on a plant that will grind and dry alfalfa simultaneously. The plant would still produce feed from leaves but would also process alfalfa stems into pellets in a way that would allow the pellets to leave less ash and other byproducts when burned than has been possible so far.

The group received $1 million from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund in 2007 to develop the idea.

The likeliest first use would be simply to burn the fuel in a boiler to generate steam, but Poier said down the road it would be possible to generate a dry powder that could be used to create natural gas and even to use alfalfa as a source for ethanol.

That, says University of Minnesota plant scientist Hans Jung, would require getting past the obstacles standing in front of any of the cellulosic sources for ethanol. Jung thinks alfalfa has promise as biofuel. The U has developed a different kind of alfalfa that stands taller, producing more stem material and requiring cutting less often.

And Jung thinks there’s potential for alfalfa as a fuel crop grown in rotation with corn, instead of the more typical corn-soybean rotation. Using alfalfa puts nitrogen back in the soil, yields vegetable protein in its leaves and offers better carbon sequestration than soybeans.

But as a potential ethanol source, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, Jung said. “We’ve been fighting this battle to get alfalfa on the radar screen for years.”

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