Why a Koch-owned refinery is joining Minnesota’s solar industry trade group

By: - October 26, 2021 6:00 am

Photo by Sirisak Boakaew/Getty Images.

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

The latest dues-paying member of Minnesota’s solar energy industry trade group is also one of the state’s largest greenhouse gas polluters.

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

The association’s leaders said the fossil fuel company won’t have any special influence over its policy agenda. They are prepared to create additional firewalls if needed but don’t expect problems with widening the organization’s tent.

“I think it’s a good thing for our industry and organization,” said Logan O’Grady, MnSEIA’s executive director. “I think that what a lot of people are craving 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. (A megawatt of solar can power roughly 190 homes.) The company is expecting to finalize its solar plans early next year. Jake Reint, Flint Hills’ public affairs managing director, reached out to MnSEIA to gather input and heard two pieces of advice: Hire an association member to build the project, and join the organization.

‘All hands on deck’

Based on its size, Flint Hills will pay $5,600 annually — the highest of the three-tiered membership rates. The fees range from $800 to $5,600 based on revenue or employee headcount.

O’Grady said if any member has a conflict, the association can exclude them from policy 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 expunged a bankrupt solar installer after ethics violations.

It’s not a hypothetical that association members might disagree on policy positions. Xcel Energy, which operates the state’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Sherco coal-fired power plant, is a member and sometimes takes a position at odds with others. O’Grady said the association does not allow Xcel to review comments it submits to the Public Utilities Commission on solar issues, participate in legislative strategy sessions, or place employees on some task forces.

“It’d be a similar structure if and when something arises with Flint Hills that we do not see eye to eye on, we would basically create a firewall and keep them out of those discussions,” he said. The refinery agreed to those terms.

MnSEIA board chair and Blue Horizon Energy CEO Griffin Dooling said Flint Hills “may not be mission-aligned with the solar industry, but ultimately they’re doing one of the largest solar projects in the state.”

As many oil and gas companies diversify from fossil fuels, joining renewable energy associations will grow more common, he said.

With around 135 members, MnSEIA is larger than any time in its history, Dooling said. Newer members include service organizations such as law and accounting firms or, as in a recent case, a drone company. Board members discussed whether Flint Hills should be accepted before “defaulting to good faith in that evaluation” and “taking them at face value,” he said.

Dooling does not anticipate in the beginning having to apply the same sort of guardrails the association imposes on Xcel. The board discussed how the association should work with Flint Hills if their interests diverge on issues. “We did have that conversation and we’re sensitive to it,” he said.

Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a MnSEIA member, said he welcomed the news about the refinery. For the past two years, more solar has been installed nationally than any other energy source, he said, and much of that has been driven by corporate procurement.

“The energy transition is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and we need every stakeholder group at the table,” Hylla said. “In some ways, the industry could benefit from the experience of oil and gas companies. In other ways, we’ll be expecting a lot more from them.”

Embracing 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 fuels 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 U.S. EPA.

Its parent company is among the leading financial supporters of climate disinformation. The Koch family’s 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 saw joining the solar association as a way to pay back “people who are providing direction, counsel and feedback.” The company will be a “nontraditional” member with a nontraditional project. The solar 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 in any of Flint Hills’ three refineries and, if successful, could become a model for the company.

Joining a clean energy association “is not something we normally do,” Reint said. “Being tied to this association as we develop this project will have a lot of mutual benefits. There are opportunities to share knowledge and learn.”

Over the years, many solar developers have approached Flint Hills with proposals to lease part of its more than 5,000 acres of property lining the Mississippi River, he said, with the refinery occupying just 20% of the land. Flint Hills eventually decided solar might be a good idea for its operations. The refinery runs on a 24/7 schedule, with high electricity costs during the day, when solar generation could reduce peak demand.

“We need to do this to stay competitive,” Reint said. “It’s economically advantageous to us.”

He said the company constantly seeks to reduce energy costs and drive down emissions, pointing to the construction of a nearly 50-megawatt natural gas combined heat and power plant at Pine Bend five years ago. Those investments, along with other measures, have made Pine Bend one of the country’s most efficient refineries and driven down emissions by more than 70% since 1997, Reint said.

Should the company decide to expand the plant in the future, solar generation could create enough power to offset any increase in greenhouse gases, he said. After hearing concerns from two environmental groups before its last expansion in 2013, Flint Hills agreed to curb emissions and finance a program in which school bus owners retrofit their vehicles to reduce pollution. In addition, the Rosemount facility produces 20% fewer emissions per barrel on average than other American refineries.

The company’s executives in Kansas did not push back on the solar project, Reint said.

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

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Frank Jossi, Energy News Network
Frank Jossi, Energy News Network

Frank Jossi is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired and the Los Angeles Times. Frank has been a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College.