It took two votes Monday before the Brainerd City Council officially expressed an interest in an alternative underground energy source.
The concept taps into the city’s sewer pipe and uses an exchange system to heat and cool buildings. For a year, a Brainerd research partnership has been researching the idea of tapping the energy created as wastewater decomposes and picks up heat from the ground. The energy collection system wouldn’t move the wastewater but would use a clean glycol process to extract the energy in a closed system. For 15 years, the Brainerd Public Utilities (BPU) has used energy from wastewater to heat its building and keep sidewalks free of snow and ice during the winter.
Monday, members from an area firm called Hidden Fuels and representatives of Trane asked for access to city expertise on the last part of the puzzle, the connection to the sewer line. The group proposed tapping into the sewer pipe on East River Road and using the energy to heat and cool the Brainerd Police Department building, which currently uses electricity for its heat and cooling. After a year of data collection, Peter Nelson, principal with Hidden Fuels, said East River Road near the football field provided a good access point and the Brainerd Police Department building offered a good match.
“There is enough energy at that location in January to heat 229 homes,” Nelson said. “It’s a significant amount of energy.”
Tapping into the sewer system, represents $9,000 annually in savings to the city., Nelson said. The process uses a heat exchanger to utilize heat in the sewer line in the winter and put heat here in the summer. The group said they were before the city now to determine if there was interest before they went further and they wanted permission to talk to city staff to get more knowledge about the connection to the sewer system.
Council President Mary Koep asked if the city wasn’t serving as guinea pigs.
“This is leading edge renewable energy,” Nelson said, adding it has the potential to create jobs and a company in this area. If the process was highly routine, Nelson said it wouldn’t have received funding from the state for economic development. Nelson said they believe there are grant funds to further the process.
“I think it raises a lot of questions,” Koep said. She wondered if putting heat in the system during the winter would create problems. Nelson said they looked at the highest temperatures in the system naturally and wouldn’t be exceeding that. Koep said the study only has one year of information and during a warm winter. Council member Dale Parks questioned how long it would take the system to pay for the investment. Nelson estimated it may take 15 to 20 years but could be shortened by grant dollars.
Council member Bob Olson said he couldn’t commit to go ahead with the project and potentially to the cost estimates Monday. The estimated cost for the project is $280,000 but Hidden Fuels representatives said they weren’t asking for a commitment from the city just an interest in getting a proposal. “We’re cautious about spending more time if you are categorically saying you aren’t interested,” Nelson said.
Council member Kelly Bevans said it may be one of the coolest ideas he’s heard and heat exchangers have been around for a 100 years so it wasn’t a new idea. Using the system has a lot of appeal not just for $9,000 year, Bevans said, but for the future. Bevans said he supported it 100 percent.
“I would urge a little caution,” Koep said, citing previous failures in the early 1980s as the Crow Wing County Board considered a proposal from a company to use composters as an alternative at the landfill and the company went broke. And she mentioned the city’s infamous fiasco with the bus company Brainerd International Trade Centre, which crumbled and left behind unpaid loans and bills and a city indebtedness of an estimated in 1990 to be $1.4 million.
While it wasn’t politically correct, Koep said she didn’t think the project was the right thing to do without guarantees it will save money or work. Koep said she’d like to meet with BPU to see what they did for heat and see what the difference is with the Hidden Fuels’ proposal.
Al Cibuzar, Hidden Fuels, suggested they all should meet, including the Brainerd School District, which has been part of the research project, BPU and the council.
Mayor James Wallin said he thought it was a great idea that should be looked into. A motion by Olson to take the issue under consideration and meet with the city’s engineering staff and BPU. Olson said making a decision to spend money Monday would be foolish. Council member Bonnie Cumberland said a meeting such as one Olson suggested made sense if the city had a proposal to consider, which it didn’t. Cumberland said she’d rather have a proposal first to have something to analyze. Koep preferred to meet with the city engineer first and ask hard questions.
Cibuzar told the council they were not looking for a commitment from the city but were asking if there was interest.
Council member Dale Parks also said he’d like to see a proposal before meeting the BPU.
The council voted 4-3 against Olson’s motion with Parks, Cumberland, Wallin and Council member Lucy Nesheim against. Council member Kevin Goedker was not present.
Cibuzar said they could come up with more information and come back in 30 days. Cibuzar said they should still meet together with the council and BPU to answer any questions.
A motion to express interest in the proposal passed with Koep opposed. Koep said the council needed to have its own meeting with BPU and the city engineer.