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Willmar Municipal Utilities applies for improvement permit for power plant

WILLMAR -- Staff at Willmar Municipal Utilities have completed 18 months of work on a state permit application seeking approval to make efficiency improvements at the local power plant. Now it's up to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to study the application, which could take a year.

General Manager Bruce Gomm on Monday informed the Municipal Utilities Commission that work on the permit application was completed and that the utility was sending a $7,125 check to cover MPCA's fee for reviewing the application.

The application covers the utility's request for a permit to burn biomass corn cobs, make energy efficiencies and coal handling and storage upgrades.

"It took that long to get the permit written,'' Gomm said. "It is fairly complicated. Incorporating all those into a permit and making sure it all makes sense as a project has been a pretty big challenge.''

Gomm said he was told by MPCA that its review could take about a year. But Gomm told the commissioners he's hoping the utility can push it faster.

In other business, the commission voted to table participation in a power supply study by the Power Coalition Group. The group had consisted of six utilities including Willmar. The purpose was to combine future power supply needs in an effort to receive better pricing and services to meet customers' future power needs.

The coalition was formed after the Big Stone II power plant project in eastern South Dakota was cancelled in October 2009. Willmar and several group members had planned to buy power from Big Stone II. Willmar's goal is to replace 30 megawatts it receives under a contract with Great River Energy that expires in 2015, and to possibly buy more to meet expected growth over the next 20 to 30 years.

Coalition members hoped they would obtain better prices by aggregating their load, instead of each member bidding for power supply by itself.

At the Sept. 13 meeting, the commissioners voted to proceed with the second part of a two-part power supply study at a cost not to exceed $30,000. The study would have involved obtaining prices from energy suppliers in the form of requests for proposals and determining pricing options with actual prices.

But the future of the group was placed in doubt late last week when the largest member, Nashwauk Utilities, withdrew from the group.

Nashwauk withdrew because the city was unable to obtain projected power needs for a proposed steel plant.

Nashwauk constituted near half of the 600 to 700 megawatts of power that the group had hoped to aggregate.

Gomm learned of Nashwauk's decision on Thursday. With Nashwauk withdrawing, the five remaining members would pay a higher cost for the study.

The local commission, faced with the task of deciding whether or not to continue with the group, decided to table the matter until members hear a power supply proposal from Avant Energy from Minneapolis. The agency works with Willmar's power supply broker Chris Carlson in scheduling power and providing backup when Carlson is on vacation.

"We are trying to look at all of our options and Avant Energy is another entity out there that is looking to help Willmar with its power supply needs,'' according to Gomm.

In related business, the commissioners received a presentation from John Knofczynski, manager of engineering and operations for Heartland Consumers Power District of Madison, S.D. Knofczynski discussed how Heartland could help meet Willmar future power needs. No action was taken.

Also Monday, the commission and Gomm discussed the possibility of seeking an increase in water rates. Gomm said the increase would require City Council approval.

The goal is to have the increase in place by the beginning of next year. Gomm said more information will be presented at a future commission meeting.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150