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Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission gets on board with financial support for local energy policy group

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission has approved a request to contribute $5,000 to Citizens Energy Plan, a new local organization working to present a non-partisan national energy policy to Congress in September 2010.

The commission had voted last fall to support the organization, but the City Council, which has final approval over commission decisions, delayed the contribution because Citizens Energy Plan had not completed the federal filing process as a nonprofit organization.

The organization had also asked the council for financial support. But the council is withholding contributions to such local groups until the council determines how the loss of state Local Government Aid will affect the 2009 budget, said Bruce DeBlieck, council liaison to the commission.

Citizens Energy Plan President Vidar Lee Byberg of Willmar told the Municipal Utilities Commission on Monday that his group has filed all the necessary paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service, and he renewed the group's request for financial support.

Commissioners voting in support were Steve Salzer, Jerry Gesch, Gary Myhre, Matt Schrupp, Doug Lindblad and Marv Kray. Dave Baker voted against.

The contribution will be taken from the $7,000 budget designated for public use, said Bruce Gomm, utility general manager.

In the past, the budget was divided equally between The Salvation Army and Heartland Community Action Agency to provide assistance to customers who were having trouble paying their utility bills, Gomm said. He said both agencies have been valuable partners in the past. Those payments are usually made later in the year, he said.

"We'll have to see what we have available when we get to the end of the year,'' Gomm said.

Other individuals, agencies and companies have also contributed to and support Citizens Energy Plan, said Byberg. Gomm said he is serving on the group's board of directors.

Byberg said Citizens Energy Plan will not actually write the plan, but is promoting a process to bring representatives of energy users, producers, environmentalists, conservationists, business and industry together to write the policy. Then lawmakers will be asked to sign it, Byberg said.

"The strategy to make that happen is to create resolve through many different avenues,'' Byberg said. The goal, he said, "is to work through citizens, companies, organizations and cities that go beyond the state level and create enough push and resolve to make this move forward.''

In other Municipal Utilities Commission business, Gomm reported the extent of repairs needed to the power plant's No. 2 turbine are greater than expected and the cost will exceed the $250,000 budget, but he does not yet know the exact amount.

Gomm said he and power plant superintendent Ken Nash discussed repair needs at Power Generation Services in Anoka where the turbine is being repaired. The company has done favorable work for Willmar in the past. Gomm said the company will prepare a list of recommended repairs and prices for the commission to consider.

The recent repairs began about a month ago and will be completed in three to four months. The turbine, one of three in the power plant, was last taken apart for service in 1992, but money for repairs was not available and the unit was returned to service.

The turbine can generate 8 megawatts of electricity, but is used mainly for capacity, which means the turbine is available in the event it is needed.

Also Monday, the commission received the 2008 reliability standard report. The report is required by law and covers safety, reliability, miles of electrical distribution and transmission lines, and quality performance.

Gomm said the utility had a very good year in 2008. He said the local distribution system had an excellent year with very few outages. He said outages caused by animal contact, particularly squirrels, were down by about 15 percent.

"We did have some transmission outages that affect all of our customers,'' Gomm said. "If we have one outage on the transmission line, it affects all of our customers. But even factoring in those, we had an extremely good year for reliability. We're in the highest reliability percentages in the country.''