Editor’s note:  One of the buildings benefiting from Rochester’s extensive green project is the Mayo Civic Center.  This sort of full circle recycling and waste processing is an innovative and cost effective solution to major issues that plague larger communities–finding ways to deal with waste, pollution, addressing the fragile karst geology of the region and water quality, producing energy in a cost effective manner, and participants in the project accessing reduced energy costs.  There are main points made in the article–including the idea of taking a superfund pollution problem and turning it into something so positive, as well as cost effective for the region.  Minnesota continues to lead in progressive environmental policies in the world, once again proving that it is a myth that true progress and environmental protection results in more cost to taxpayers–and to be clear–not true.   Minnesota’s policies of the past 20 years have resulted in a healthier economy and healthier environment than similar regional states,  and  with 7 of these such projects in the state—Minnesotans are world leaders of the technology.  .


The Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) is making garbage useful by burning it to produce energy in the form of steam and electricity. Each day non-recycle waste is turned into heat, electricity and air conditioning for more than 26 county public buildings.


The Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) is one component of Olmsted County’s integrated approach to solid waste management. The OWEF produces steam and electricity which is provided to 30+ buildings in the Olmsted County District Energy System (OCDES) and reduces the volume of waste that goes to a landfill by about 90%. Since opening in 1987, over two million tons of garbage have been turned into energy.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How does Olmsted County handle solid waste management?


A: While our best option is always reducing the amount of waste generated, we must also use all our local resources, including garbage, to its fullest, instead of shipping it off to other communities or burying the material away for future generations to deal with.


Olmsted County uses a holistic approach to solid waste management by promoting reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and recovery. After that, safe disposal is used as a last resort.


Above all, we remain committed to managing as much waste as we can above ground while meeting or exceeding all environmental standards.


Q: Why is Olmsted County managing the waste disposal system?


A: There is a legal framework for counties in Minnesota to be responsible for solid waste (household and commercial garbage) management by following the County Solid Waste Management Act (1970), Waste Management Act of 1980 and related laws. This framework sets forth goals to foster an integrated waste management system to protect the state’s land, air, water, and other natural resources and the public health.


Q: Does Olmsted County use an Integrated Solid Waste Management System?


A: Yes, it does. The “out of sight, out of mind” method of handling waste is in the past. We are in a new waste conscious era. Olmsted County’s motto is “There’s a Proper Place for Your Waste.”


Olmsted County has an integrated system to ensure all the items we throw away are properly managed. A single solution to waste management is not the answer to the solid waste problem. By using an integrated system, we dispose of all types of waste in the most beneficial, environmentally safe and economical way.


The system requires waste management practices to be provided in the following preference:


  • Waste reduction and reuse
  • Waste recycling
  • Composting of yard waste and food waste
  • Resource recovery through mixed municipal solid waste composting or incineration
  • Land disposal



Q: How much waste is produced in Olmsted County?


A: Approximately one million pounds of waste is produced each day in our County- more than 43 percent of that is recycled.


Q: What is the background on the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility?


A: In the 1980s, garbage disposal was a hot topic in the community. The Oronoco Landfill was listed as a Superfund cleanup site, and there was a growing concern that a drinking water aquifer was impacted due to our local Karst terrain of underground fractures, fissures, sinkholes, and conduits that make our groundwater susceptible to pollution. We could have easily shipped our trash off to another county or state to deal with, but the leaders of the community were seeking a more sustainable and better way to deal with solid waste. Their vision and leadership resulted in an integrated solid waste management system that included a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility, recycling center, hazardous waste facility, yard waste composting site, and the development of a modern landfill that exceeded state requirements.


The Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) began operation in 1987. Minnesota has seven WTE plants, more than the rest of the Midwest region combined; however, the U.S. remains behind the rest of the world with less than 100 WTE plants nationwide.


Q: How does the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) work?


A: At the OWEF, the county’s garbage is burned to create steam and electricity, providing energy to more than 30 buildings in Rochester. Through that process, the volume of trash is reduced by about 90 percent, leaving only about 10 percent in the form of ash (which is deposited in an environmentally protective ash monofill at the Olmsted County Kalmar Landfill).


The OWEF helps us preserve space at the Kalmar Landfill. Without it, this landfill would have been filled to capacity by 1997! Because we burn the trash to create energy, we are reducing greenhouse gases that would otherwise be created by waste decomposing in our landfill. We are also displacing the fossil fuels that would be required to produce the same amount of energy.


Q: How does the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) impact the environment?


A: Under the federal Clean Air Act, waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities are required to be equipped with the most modern air pollution control technology available to ensure emissions are safe for human health and the environment. The OWEF has robust pollution control and capture technology and is in compliance with all state and federal air emission standards.


We operate the OWEF safely and efficiently to ensure emissions continue to be well below permitted limits. We have well-trained workers that properly operate OWEF equipment and state-of-the-art pollution control systems that control and/or capture extremely small particulate matter, acid gasses, metals and dioxins.


In Olmsted County, we take solid waste management and pollution control very seriously. We continue to monitor advancements in technology to determine feasibility of enhancing our current system to divert additional materials for greater efficiency and environmental benefit.


Q: Does Waste-to-Energy (WTE) compete with recycling?


A: It’s a common myth that recycling and WTE are competitive technologies. The reality is that recycling and WTE are complementary technologies. Modern WTE facilities are designed to burn the low-grade fuel that remains after recycling has done its job. Waste materials like aluminum, ferrous and non-ferrous metals and glass have no heating value and cause increased operating costs. Other wastes like cardboard, newsprint and high-grade paper are more cost-effectively managed via recycling. WTE provides a tremendous benefit in that wastes that have no market) can be used to produce energy, thus eliminating the need to purchase conventional fuels like coal, oil or gas. Communities that use WTE to manage garbage typically exhibit higher than average recycling rates.


Q: How is the Olmsted County Integrated Solid Waste Management System funded?


A: The Olmsted County integrated solid waste management system is funded 100% by user fees. No property taxes are used for the facilities, nor is it planned for the future. The philosophy of the County Board is that citizens should pay for the amount of waste they dispose, and the best way is through user fees. This philosophy encourages more waste abatement and recycling efforts. If a citizen can reuse or recycle materials, the citizen saves the cost of disposal.


The system accounting is managed by using a public “Enterprise Fund.” The Fund operates similar to a private business whereby revenues and expenditures are budgeted to operate the five waste management facilities and funds are carried over from year to year. No property tax revenues are used to operate the Fund. The non-profit Fund revenues are primarily derived from the tipping fees (user fees) collected from waste haulers depositing waste materials at the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility (OWEF) and Kalmar Landfill and also from the sale of energy to steam and electric customers.


Q: Are there odors from the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility?


A: No. The OWEF was designed to have negative air pressure. When the doors to the disposal area are opened, air is drawn in, thus containing odors within the garbage tipping-floor and pit area. The inside air is blown into the furnace and used in the combustion process thus destroying the contained odors.




Waste-to-Energy Facility


Address: 301 Energy Parkway NE, Rochester, MN 55906

Phone: 507-328-7070


Provided by our partners at Experience Rochester