State releases request for biodigester proposals

Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner, center front, addresses supervisors regarding a proposed biogas project on Dec. 20. Photo by Warren Bluhm

By Warren Bluhm

Three developments occurred Tuesday regarding a proposed project to build an anaerobic digester serving Kewaunee County to convert manure into energy.

1. County officials continued to voice frustration that state agencies are moving forward with the project with virtually no input or involvement from Kewaunee County itself.

2. The state of Wisconsin released a 35-page request for proposals (RFP) from parties interested in moving ahead with the project.

3. Lynn Utesch, a key figure in the Kewaunee Cares environmental organization and recent Democratic candidate for state Assembly, announced an open records request for any and all communications related to Project Phoenix, the feasibility study that led to the RFP.

‘In the dark’

During a meeting of the county Land & Water Conservation Committee, members said they’ve been forced into a spectator role as state agencies work on the biodigester project.

Supervisor Lee Luft noted that “technically it’s not Project Phoenix anymore,” as the network of digesters envisioned in the study has been replaced by a “hub and spoke” proposal that would transport manure from farms to a central digester.

“To my knowledge to this day there is not a single person in Kewaunee County, any elected official, who has had any role in this process,” Supervisor Lee Luft said, adding that it was his understanding that the RFP would be released by mid-January. The new state document actually was released about an hour after the end of Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Supervisor Chuck Wagner said County Board Chairman Robert Weidner has been trying to get information out of the governor’s office, the Department of Natural Resources, the Public Service Commission and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but with limited success.

“When you say you’re not hearing anything or you’re not seeing anything, we’re not either,” Wagner told about 15 spectators who attended the meeting. “We’re as much in the dark about this whole project as you are. And that is a dirty, dirty shame.”

“Right now, we don’t understand anything, we don’t know anything,” said committee Chairman John Pagel, “and until I get to see something what this is all about, it’s hard for me to give an opinion on it when I don’t know what it’s going to be.

RFP released

Not long after the local meeting broke up, the state Public Service Commission posted the RFP on a special page that includes a link to download the document.

The PSC has authorized Focus on Energy to spend “up to $20 million for Integrated Anaerobic Digester projects that meet Focus on Energy eligibility requirements,” the document indicates. It’s expected that the full cost of the project could be as much as 10 times that amount.

The process will begin with a “pre-proposal seminar” on Feb. 1 to provide prospective applicants with more detailed information. Proposals are due May 1, applicants are scheduled to make presentations May 10-11, and they would be notified of their award status by June 5.

As Weidner said he expected in his report to the County Board Dec. 20, the word “Kewaunee” does not actually appear in the RFP.

“As long as the bidders propose to solve the problems listed … there may be other areas in the state, but they want to make this broad enough that it is not necessarily directed just at Kewaunee County,” Weidner said at that time.

Open records request

Utesch said he’s asking “for all information that pertains to the Phoenix Project from all county employees, county elected officials, that all communications including email that went to state agencies, all state agencies, all federal agencies and all state legislators and the governor’s office.”

Gov. Scott Walker made the announcement about the RFP Nov. 17 about two hours after his office informed county officials the governor was coming.

“We have been force-fed a so-called solution without citizen input, without citizen knowledge, and definitely without the recommendation of those very workgroups that were formed to deal with our groundwater issues here in Kewaunee County,” Utesch said, referring to the various panels that spent 20 months studying the issues and developing recommendations. “At no time was the Phoenix Project ever deemed to be a solution or a recommendation for our groundwater issues.”

Nowhere in this country has groundwater been fixed by digester system, he said.

“It’s time that we had the courage to stand up, if this is something that is going to go forward, to bring it out to the light of day so that all the citizens can participate in this and have the information of what is taking place, what the governor’s talking about, what our county is talking about, so that we know what is taking place,” Utesch said.