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Red Lake Falls renews interest in biomass plant

Here are an architect's renderings of a biomass energy plant (below) that contains no smokestacks, because the closed-system would require no towers or scrubbers, which proponents say would produce no emissions. The top version shows one a plant with towers. Sketch provided by Vortex Energy Systems

RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- Backers of a proposed $300 million, 30-megawatt biomass energy plant that could provide 70 jobs and produce electricity for the city of Red Lake Falls will present the proposal to the public Wednesday.

Plans call for converting local municipal waste as well as agricultural waste products such as sugar beet pulp into electricity, as well as biodiesel or other environmentally products, such as animal feed, according to developer Arden “Bud” Comstock, a former Pennington County commissioner who is sponsoring and hosting the meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Red Lake Falls City Hall.

Officials from Vortex Energy Systems, the California-based energy technology developer involved in the project, also will attend the meeting.

“The plant will demonstrate how we can eliminate undesirable waste products, clean contaminated water, produce algae byproducts, such as animal feed or bio-diesel, produce power economically and with a negative carbon footprint,” Comstock said. “The unique thing about this is that it will be operating with a closed-loop system. There won’t be any towers, scrubbers or anything like that. That means no emissions will come out.”

While local officials are eager to learn more about the project, some are skeptical, at least in part because details have been sketchy.

“My personal opinion is that if it’s set up properly, it’s a good deal for the whole area,” said retired Mayor Vaughn Thorfinnson, who signed the original two-year agreement for the city to work with Comstock’s group on such a project.

“I looked at it as a win-win deal all the way around,” he said last week. “The city didn’t have a penny invested in it. The city is in a position to benefit.”

Kevin Harmoning, the city’s current mayor, said the city saw little or no progress during the life of the contract, which expired in December. So, the Red Lake Falls City Council declined to renew it.

The City Council also has signed a power purchase agreement with Otter Tail Power Co. to buy its electrical power from that utility until 2028.

“I think we could certainly look at this process,” he said, “but we can’t buy from Vortex.”

Comstock said power purchase agreements can be negotiated, that it’s possible for the cities to buy out such contracts, and that he is looking forward to sharing more details at Wednesday’s meeting.

The developer said he has spent most of the past two years arranging financing, which he said now is in place.

“I made sure Red Lake Falls has absolutely zero obligations,” he said. “We are going to be dumping $300 million into that community, in infrastructure. We’re going to be paying taxes, going to be providing 70 jobs and we’re going to be lowering their utility costs.”

Comstock said the company would provide Red Lake Falls with a guaranteed electrical rate for the next 25 years that is more than a penny per kilowatt hour lower than the city’s current rate.

He said the plant could be up and running within two years of signing a contract.

Comstock said such plants could be built throughout the state, adding that if Red Lake Falls ultimately balks at the proposal, he will approach other cities.

“This is something that’s huge for the state of Minnesota,” he said. “It produces a negative carbon footprint. We can go to landfill, excavate that material, produce fuel and remediate the soils and put the land back in production.”

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.