WILLMAR — In less than a year, the district heat system that has served customers in and around downtown Willmar will shut down for good. The decommission date, set by the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission and approved by the Willmar City Council two years ago, is July 1, 2020. District heat customers will need to install a new heating system in their properties prior to that date.

Michelle Marotzke, energy service and marketing representative for Willmar Municipal Utilities, gave an update on the decommission process at Monday's commission meeting. Marotzke said there are currently 122 properties still hooked up to the system, though most of the largest users have already transferred to other sources of heat.

"We've got quite a few residential and small businesses yet," Marotzke said.

Willmar Municipal Utilities has already sent three letters to district heat customers, reminding them of the imminent shutdown of the system. Another letter will also be going out in September. Marotzke said a postcard, in English, Somali and Spanish, was mailed to customers as well, making them aware of the letters being sent out. Information can also be found on the utilities' website and Facebook page.

The letter urges people to contact a heating, ventilation and air conditioning professional quickly in order to begin the process of installing a new heating system. Those customers who get their hot water from the district heat system will also need to install a hot water heater. Those who want to hook up to natural gas will need to contact CenterPoint Energy as soon as possible.

"Contractor schedules are getting full as well. Folks need to be getting a hold of them and making plans now, even if they don't intend to switch this year," Commissioner Justin Mattern said.

The letter also gives customers a few options to regarding financing if funding the project is a hardship. They include United Community Action Partnership, Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, property-assessed clean energy financing through MinnPACE or Clean Energy Resource Teams. For those unable to get financing elsewhere, Willmar Municipal Utilities also has a loan program for those customers installing an entirely electric heating system.

This fall Willmar Municipal Utilities intends to personally visit those properties they haven't heard from yet, to make sure they are aware of the district heat shutdown. The decommission date will not be pushed back and the heating system will no longer be operational after July 1, 2020.

"That direct outreach is probably going to be critical in this final stage," Mattern said.

When the decommission decision was made in June 2017, there were approximately 209 district heat properties, now there are 122. Willmar Municipal Utilities had hoped to be further along by this point.

"We aren't quite at the halfway point yet, we have to speed things up," Mattern said. "Keep the pressure out there."

The decision was made to decommission district heat due to the expense to update the system. Such a project could have doubled the users rates. Also, while at its peak the district heat system had close to 400 customers, in the last several years the number of customers dropped. Before the decommission was approved, there were about 218 customers.

When the heating system is shut down on July 1, 2020, it will mark the end of more than a century of the power plant heating downtown Willmar. The district heat system began in 1913, when steam exhaust from the power plant was used to heat downtown properties. The system was converted to hot water in the 1980s. It is now one of the last few district heat systems still operating in Minnesota and will soon join other cities who have decided to shut down.