Plant would convert Kansas wheat straw to natural gas

WICHITA, Kan. — A renewable-energy company wants to invest more than $100 million in a biofuel plant in Kansas that it estimates would create 225 jobs and generate $3.5 million a year for area farmers. But some Sumner County farmers and others in the area are concerned about what the plant could mean for their water supply.

The Wichita Eagle reported that the VNA Corp.’s proposed plant would turn water and baled crop residue — such as wheat straw and corn leaves, stalks and cobs — into natural gas. The plant would need 50 million gallons a year of water and more than 75,000 metric tons of straw and stover — a common name for corn leaves, stalks and cobs — for its first phase of operation, according to company presentation documents.

The plant would not produce ethanol, cellulosic ethanol or bio-diesel. It would create bio-methane — or renewable natural gas — through anaerobic digestion.

“It’s no different than what a cow does,” said Greg Northrup, president of Michigan-based VNA Corp., at a recent Sumner County Planning Commission meeting in Wellington.

Anaerobic digestion is a natural process in which microorganisms break down organic material, generating gas, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. The gas generated in the process is mostly methane, the primary component of natural gas.

The process also produces humus, an organic material that forms when plant and animal matter decays, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

The plant is proposed for 160 acres along the Ninnescah River, about 5 miles southwest of the Kansas Star Casino.

The site was chosen, the company says, because a large-capacity, low-pressure natural gas pipeline runs through the area, and an electric substation sits less than 2 miles away. Also, there’s access to highways and an interstate, sufficient groundwater and river water and available crop residue in Sumner and surrounding counties.

But water supply was a contentious issue at the planning commission meeting.

The plant needs 100 gallons of water a minute and the company plans to use a groundwater well, but could also tap into the river, Northrup said. He said the river has a flow rate of 520 cubic feet per second and the plant would need only 12.5 cubic feet per second — if all of its water came from the river.

Mitch Tibbs, who said he has fished on the river for over 50 years, disputed Northrup’s numbers. He claimed that the river averages around 100 cubic feet per second and that 2011 was an especially bad year.

U.S. Geological Survey water data for the Ninnescah River near Peck, which is near the proposed site, shows an annual mean discharge of 520.4 cubic feet per second from 1938 to 2017. The number was higher last year, reaching 616.2 cubic feet.

But 2011 was the river’s driest year on record since 1938, with a mean discharge of 157.8 cubic feet per second.

Randal Morgan, who lives across the river from where the plant is proposed, said he is concerned that the plant could drain the groundwater level too low and he will have to put in additional wells. He said he is also concerned that the plant could have a negative effect on area property values.

William Stone, who said he owns 7 1/2 acres in the area, said he is concerned about a change in water quality and a decrease in water level that would make it more difficult for area residents to wash clothes and water plants and animals.

Northrup said the company is filing for a water permit from the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources. Too much rain in previous weeks had postponed the drilling of test wells, he said.

“Anaerobic digestion requires water. If we can’t satisfy the water requirement, I have no desire to be there,” Northrup said.

The humus produced as a byproduct of generating the gas will be returned to feedstock suppliers or sold, VNA said.

“We will return humus to the land,” Northrup said. “We take the carbon out of the wheat straw or corn stover. We return all the rest of the values that the crop residue contains — the phosphates, nitrates. We will be working with growers to explain the value of this product as it might relate to current farm practices.”

Northrup said the humus is 25 percent dry matter and 75 percent water.

Doug Hisken, a certified crop adviser in Belle Plaine, spoke against the proposed plant, saying that crop residues are not waste products.

“The soil is a living organism, dependent on millions of interactions … the key to these interactions is carbon,” he said.

Hisken said farmers will “turn ourselves into the Sahara Desert” and “western Kansas will move to … the west edge of our county” if fields lose their soil carbon.

“What is this plant solving for us — what problem are they solving?” Hisken asked rhetorically. “Do we need less straw in our fields, do we need our carbon mined out of our fields, do we need more natural gas when it’s $2.50 in the market? I just am baffled at what we need this for.”

Hisken cited the sale of a cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton after its parent company’s bankruptcy and the closing of a DuPont facility in Iowa.

“Weaving straw into gold is the story of Rumpelstiltskin suggested in fairy tales,” he said.

The plant could also use cover crops. One planning commissioner said most of the farmers he knows want the straw, stover and cover crops left on the soil.

Northrup said the people he has talked to at Kansas State University and the Kansas Wheat Grower’s Commission are “very interested in what we’re proposing.”

If the project is approved, the company will pay for a Kansas Department of Transportation traffic study and any necessary improvements, including paving roads, Northrup said. The company would work with area fire departments for emergency response plans and training, he said.

The business will rely on federal green energy subsidies, the company says. The renewable natural gas production will generate RINs, which the EPA calls the “currency” of the Renewable Fuel Standard Program. The fuel has to be used in vehicles, such as for municipal buses.

VNA projects that the plant would create 75 full-time jobs directly and another 150 jobs indirectly in Sumner County, with a median wage of $32 an hour.

VNA is developing the project using technology and financing from Germany-based VERBIO, presentation documents state. Northrup said VERBIO is the largest producer of renewable natural gas in Europe. VNA also considered locations in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma, he said.

Northrup went to the planning commission meeting because VNA needs a zone change from rural to heavy industrial and a conditional use permit. Planning commission Chairman Bruce Weber said their job is to consider land use and not economic questions.

Over 150 people filled the room, some standing in the back or sitting on the floor. Many wore stickers on their shirts and hats that said “no.”

Martin Colling said he lives across the street from where the plant is proposed. He is one of nearly 300 members in a Facebook group called “Save the Ninnescah River.”

“I want to thank Mr. Northrup for bringing this community together (in opposition to the plant),” Colling said.

The only public speakers not explicitly opposed to the project simply asked people to wait to make a decision until they have more information.

Sumner County Planning Commission officials took no action on the case. The discussion is scheduled to continue at its September meeting.

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