Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner gave the board a verbal update Tuesday on the proposed biogas project that the state Public Service Commission (PSC), the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) are developing for Kewaunee County.

County officials have criticized the state agencies for not including them in the process of developing the project, which aims to address water quality issues that some have linked to manure spreading on thin soil over fragile karst bedrock.

The PSC in June released a report on what former County Board Chairman Ron Heuer dubbed “Project Phoenix” – an initiative to convert manure into energy – that was prepared by Dynamic Concepts LLC of Waukesha. Gov. Scott Walker last month announced that the three state agencies would be pursuing the initiative.

During the County Board’s regular December meeting, Weidner reported on his efforts to learn more about the matter. Here is a partial transcript of his remarks, which began with a reference to Walker’s Nov. 17 announcement:

We’ve all been waiting for formal and specific information as to what that means, where it’s headed, our role in the development of the project – (answers to) none of these questions have been readily available. I’ve been in contact with the PSC and some of the DNR people, asking a lot of questions as to the timeline and what they’re going to do.

They are putting out an RFP – request for proposals – in January. This was not obvious to all of us at the time what that meant. The purpose of the RFP – and this is verbal information I’m getting from the PSC, they haven’t sent me a document, which I generally like to see it in writing before I get too far into it – this RFP is designed to select an entity that would be qualified and capable of managing and financing a project.

The project has many phases – one of the objectives is to create a gas product that is similar to natural gas and can be sold on the national market, by contract. The PSC offered $20 million in seed money to get this project started; the seed money will not be paid until successful completion and operation of the project, the system, so that may be literally years down the road before they pay out the $20 million.

It’s a little bit obscure how they’re going to select this contractor or group of contractors or investors or some capital management people, still unknown, but they’re going to create a point system. The individuals or groups that apply for the RFP will be scored on a point system based on the degree to which they satisfy three prerequisites.

No. 1 is that it ends up producing a renewable gas that is suitable to be injected into the natural gas pipeline. No. 2 is the improved nutrient management and how, when and where the nutrients are applied in Kewaunee County and provide some relief for some of the situations we have with spreading in not the ideal conditions; in other words, weather is a problem, rain, frozen ground, etc.

The third issue is that it must also provide for improvement of water quality within the perimeter of the project area in the high-risk soils, which is half of Kewaunee County.

The selection criteria would be who is most able to comply with all of these issues, and they’re scored accordingly. If the company can do two well and the third not so well, they would score lower on the third issue and have a lesser chance of winning the contract. They also are checking for whether or not anyone who responds to the RFP is financially capable and has the capital to do the job, which is over $100 million total.

One of the criteria also is it must be capable of serving medium and large farms, it is not intended to only address large farms, CAFOs by definition; it must also assist other farmers that have nutrient management problems that this could possibly help them with.

Here’s one issue that surprised me a little bit: This RFP will not designate Kewaunee County as the site for the system. As long as the bidders propose to solve the problems listed, the three main problems – it has to be in an area with compromised soils, it has to be in an area that has water quality problems, and it has to be in an area where there’s a large volume of nutrients available to feed into the system – Kewaunee County, by the way, has all of those – 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.

It may also be more than one facility. They may fund two facilities with $10 million each, and that would be up to those who respond to the RFP; if they propose two facilities and they fit all the requirements, that’s also possible that it would go in two different parts of the state.

In my discussions and pleas with the PSC, I mentioned a few times that there’s a lack of information and they recognized that. The only really intensive document we have the the Dynamic report we’ve had for a few months. They did tell me it will not necessarily follow this exactly, it’s more up to the bidders and contractors to come up with their version of this. They promised me that the DNR will create a website that would be devoted specifically to this project where anyone – the board included and the general public – will have access to timely updates and any information that belongs in the public domain. I stressed that very much, that in order to satisfy the questions of the public, and there are numerous questions, they need to do a better job of letting us know and everybody else where this is headed.

I discussed just today with (County Administrator Scott) Feldt that the county put up a specific website on this topic also, which will eventually link to the DNR site once they get their site up; hopefully we’ll get ours up before they do, and we will post all the information that is officially approved and generated from the DNR, DATCP and PSC. We will not be posting information which is more anecdotal or – even like the hearsay that I just reported tonight (which) was a phone call. I would not post something I received just verbally; it would have to be in written document.

The first submission to the website will be this Dynamic report, and I don’t have a complete list yet, but the governor’s press release, there was a press release from the PSC independently also; (state Rep.) Joel Kitchens also supplied us with a question-and-answer, FAQ document. I have a few emails that have some information, I would post those also, and also there is what they call a peer review document where the University of Wisconsin reviewed the Dynamic document and critiqued it as to whether they felt – critiqued it for accuracy and challenged a few of the points in that report. All of those things should be available in a timely manner. At least on our end, you will have everything at least that I have. I think that’s important that no one board member has knowledge that others don’t have access to. There’s nothing about this project that should be secret or should be confined to just a few members of the board.

The state is doing a lot of things behind scenes, and necessarily so on some of the items. The RFP – they don’t want to give me a copy of it, they have a draft form. Their reasoning is they do not want to selectively release an RFP which may or may not give a competitive advantage to one of the bidders … so when they come out with that, I should be getting it, I hope, and as soon as I get it, we’ll post it up.