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Major Willmar Utilities projects begin this year

Tribune file photo Construction will begin this year on a new Priam substation, one of the top projects on tap for Willmar Municipal Utilities. The total project is estimated to cost around $4.5 million and has been in the works since 2010.

WILLMAR — 2017 was a busy year for Willmar Municipal Utilities and 2018 is shaping up to be just as active.

"There is no slowdown yet. There is plenty going on," said John Harren, general manager of Willmar Municipal Utilities.

A major construction project coming up is the Priam Substation, which will bring increased reliability and redundancy to the city's power grid.

"We're hoping to break ground on that this spring," Harren said, with the project already having gone out to bid.

The total project is estimated to cost around $4.5 million and has been in the works since 2010. In 2014, the utilities purchased 47.82 acres of land along state Highway 23 southwest of Willmar from Jennie-O Turkey Store for $352,000 and an engineering services agreement was approved with DGR Engineering in February 2017.

The construction portion of the project is scheduled to take about a year.

"It won't be in service until late spring 2019," Harren said.

A second project to happen in 2018 is the upgrade to six diesel generators that provide the utilities with emergency backup power. The addition of emission equipment to the generators will meet power generation standards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees most of the country's power grid, Harren said.

In addition to the construction projects, there are also important decisions that need to be made in the coming year.

"We are still working on our water treatment plant," Harren said.

Since 2012 the utilities has been planning for possible upgrades at the northeast water treatment plant — one of two plants in the city — to help remove ammonia from the water. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is also mandating municipalities lower the amount of chloride, or salty discharge, from its treated water. The salt is mostly coming from water softeners in homes, and the high salt levels can negatively affect water quality, wildlife and plants.

Possible solutions to lower the salt in Willmar's water is to either soften the water in the water treatment plant before it reaches consumers or add a sulfuric acid system, which could lower the pH of water, leading to softer water. Consumers can also help by installing high-efficiency softeners which use less salt than conventional models.

"Hopefully by the end of the summer, we will have a decision on how the community as a whole will deal with salty discharge," Harren said.

Discussions will also continue on the utilities' power supply contracts and the future of the Willmar Power Plant.

First, the Municipal Utilities Commission will need to decide on whether to continue purchasing power as an independent utility or join a joint action agency with other municipal utilities. Once that is figured out, attention will be turned to the power plant.

As long as the city provides district heat, the power plant needs to generate 5 megawatts of power an hour. However, since district heat is being shut down as of July 1, 2020, the utilities now has more options regarding the plant.

"I would imagine by the end of the year we will have a decision on that," Harren said.

One change that has already taken place for 2018 is the increase in the water rates and the initiation of the city franchise fee. Customers will see the increases starting on their February bill. A rate increase notice will be added to all utility bills, to explain the increases.

An issue that has taken a back seat is a possible new facility. A combined facility including space for offices as well as trucks and other utilities equipment has been under discussion for several years.

With so many other big issues facing the utilities in the upcoming months, the commission has decided to slow down on that project for the time being, Harren said. They also want at least 25 percent of the cost saved up before any project moves forward.

"They're placing it low on our priority list," Harren said.