WILLMAR — The turbines and boilers will remain quiet and cold at the Willmar Municipal Power Plant in downtown, as the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission approved shutting it down for good.
"We've have discussed this many, many times in depth. This is the only logical direction to take," said Commissioner Bruce DeBlieck.
The plant's last day in operation will be June 30, 2020. It will be decommissioned the same day as the district heat system.
The plant has not been used to produce electricity for about 18 months, and for about a year a smaller rental boiler has been producing the steam needed for district heat.
The commission met in a work session last week on the plant's future. The plant's age, reliability, deferred maintenance and other costs needed to keep it running were discussed at length. In the end, the commission decided it was better to shut the plant down than try to keep it running as a source of emergency generation during a catastrophic event.
"I don't see a viable path going forward" to keep it, said Commissioner Justin Mattern.
To keep the plant open, Willmar Municipal Utilities would have to address several maintenance issues; would have to purchase and install a small heating boiler to keep the plant warm when not in use; and have seven certified staff on hand to operate the plant were it needed. The utilities' budget does not include those costs, and a rate adjustment most likely would have been needed.
"Economically, it makes sense to (shut it down)," said General Manager John Harren, following the meeting.
At the Nov. 5 work session, staff presented a catastrophic event generation plan, to replace the power plant's potential power generation in case of an emergency. The initial idea would have Willmar Municipal Utilities rent four diesel generators from Ziegler CAT to provide emergency power generation in case the city is without power. Transformers would be installed at the substation located at the power plant to allow the rental generators to be hooked to the grid as soon as they arrived in town.
The commission on Tuesday directed staff to continue formulating the plan. Questions arose about whether the city's water system has emergency generation. While the water treatment plant does, the wells and some of the lift stations do not. The commission wants staff to address such concerns in a catastrophic event generation plan before it is approved.
"I think what was presented was a good start, but I don't necessarily know it was complete," Mattern said.
Even though the power plant will cease operations June 30, it could be several years before anything happens to the actual building. The plant houses controls for the system that provides power to customers around Willmar and the plant would need to remain until the decision is made to move those controls to another location.
"We still need to address the building itself," Harren said. "Those discussions are still to come."
If Willmar Municipal Utilities decides to demolish the plant, it could cost up to $5 million, with two-thirds of that for asbestos abatement.
Commission President Carol Laumer said she hopes the plant could be repurposed into something else. There are companies buying up old power plants with plans to turn them into shopping destinations, industrial parks and even housing. Those types of projects don't come cheap though and the commission understands this.
"I can only hope we can find someone to rescue the building," said Laumer. "It does take two coal cars full of money."