Why a Koch-owned refinery joins the Minnesota solar industry business group


This article first appeared on the Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The latest contributing member of the Minnesota solar power industry trade group is also one of the state’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters.

Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries that owns the sprawling Pine Bend refinery south of St. Paul, was unanimously accepted by the group’s board of directors last month at the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.

The association’s leaders said the fossil fuel company would have no particular influence on its political agenda. They are willing to create additional firewalls if needed, but don’t expect any issues with the organization’s tent expansion.

“I think this is a good thing for our industry and our organization,” said Logan O’Grady, executive director of MnSEIA. “I think what a lot of people are looking for right now is collaboration. They want to see people come together and work on things where they can. “

In this case, the collaboration stems from Flint Hills’ aspirations to build a 30 megawatt or larger solar project on its campus. (One megawatt of solar power can power about 190 homes.) The company plans to finalize its solar plans early next year. Jake Reint, general manager of public affairs for Flint Hills, reached out to MnSEIA for comment and heard two tips: hire an association member to build the project and join the organization.

” Everyone on the bridge “

Based on its size, Flint Hills will pay $ 5,600 per year, the highest of the three tier membership rates. Fees range from $ 800 to $ 5,600 depending on income or number of employees.

O’Grady said if a member has a conflict, the association can exclude them from political deliberations. The association also has a code of ethics that allows the board to remove members who violate it – although rarely invoked, the board this year struck off a bankrupt solar installer after violations of the law. ‘ethics.

It is not an assumption that the members of the association can disagree on political positions. Xcel Energy, which operates the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Sherco coal-fired power plant, is a member and sometimes takes a stance at odds with others. O’Grady said the association does not allow Xcel to review comments it submits to the Utilities Commission on solar issues, participate in legislative strategy sessions or place employees in certain groups of job.

“It would be a similar structure if and when something happened with Flint Hills that we didn’t agree on, we would essentially create a firewall and keep them out of those discussions,” he said. . The refinery has accepted these conditions.

MnSEIA Board Chairman and Blue Horizon Energy CEO Griffin Dooling said Flint Hills “may not be aligned with the solar industry’s mission, but ultimately, they are carrying out one of the largest solar projects in the state “.

As many oil and gas companies branch out from fossil fuels, membership in renewable energy associations will become more and more common, he said.

With around 135 members, the MnSEIA is bigger than ever in its history, Dooling said. New members include service organizations such as law and accountancy firms or, as in a recent case, a drone company. Board members discussed whether Flint Hills should be accepted before “failing in good faith in this assessment” and “taking it at face value,” he said.

Dooling does not anticipate initially having to apply the same kind of safeguards that the association imposes on Xcel. The board discussed how the association should work with Flint Hills if their interests diverge on issues. “We have had this conversation and we appreciate it,” he said.

Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a member of MnSEIA, said he welcomed the news from the refinery. In the past two years, more solar power has been installed nationwide than any other power source, he said, and this is largely due to corporate purchases.

“The energy transition is a time when all stakeholders are on the bridge, and we need all the stakeholder groups at the table,” Hylla said. “In some ways, the industry could benefit from the experience of oil and gas companies. In other respects, we will expect a lot more from them.

Adopt solar

Flint Hills employs more than 1,000 workers in an operation that refines most of the transportation fuels used in Minnesota, including gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It also manufactures asphalt and other products. By volume, the refinery is the 14th largest transportation fuel facility in the country and the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota after Sherco and Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center, according to the US EPA. .

Its parent company is one of the main financial supporters of climate disinformation. The Koch family foundations have given more than $ 145 million since 1997 to organizations attacking climate science and solutions, according to Greenpeace. PRWatch reported that Koch Industries spent $ 11 million in 2019 to oppose the Green New Deal.

Reint said Flint Hills viewed membership in the Solar Association as a way to reimburse “people who provide guidance, advice and feedback.” The company will be a “non-traditional” member with a non-traditional project. Solar energy will be generated and consumed on site rather than sold to a utility through a net metering agreement.

The solar installation will be the first built at one of three refineries in Flint Hills and, if successful, could become a model for the company.

Joining a clean energy association “isn’t something we normally do,” Reint said. “Being linked to this association as we develop this project will have many mutual benefits. There are opportunities to share knowledge and learn.

Over the years, many solar developers have approached Flint Hills with offers to lease some of its more than 5,000 acres of property bordering the Mississippi River, he said, with the refinery occupying only 20% of the area. ground. Flint Hills finally decided that solar might be a good idea for their operations. The refinery operates 24/7, with high electricity costs during the day, when solar production could reduce peak demand.

“We have to do this to stay competitive,” Reint said. “It is economically advantageous for us.

He said the company was constantly looking to reduce energy costs and emissions, highlighting the construction of a nearly 50 megawatt natural gas-fired combined heat and power plant at Pine Bend five years ago. These investments, along with other measures, have made Pine Bend one of the most efficient refineries in the country and have reduced emissions by more than 70% since 1997, Reint said.

If the company decides to expand the plant in the future, solar production could create enough electricity to offset any increase in greenhouse gases, he said. After hearing concerns from two environmental groups before its latest expansion in 2013, Flint Hills agreed to cut emissions and fund a program in which school bus owners refurbish their vehicles to reduce pollution. In addition, the Rosemount facility produces on average 20% less emissions per barrel than other US refineries.

Company executives in Kansas did not push back on the solar project, Reint said.

“We are very encouraged to continue to innovate and find ways to do better in everything we do,” he said. “We adopt disruptive technologies, but our preferences are that they come from the market rather than from incentives or government mandates. “


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