WILLMAR — The end has come for the decades-old Willmar Power Plant and the district heat system that provided heat for hundreds of residents and businesses in and around downtown Willmar since 1913.
While there won't be any dramatic flip of a switch or sudden blackout at the plant, at 12:01 a.m. July 1, Willmar Municipal Utilities will officially decommission both the plant and heating system, due to costs and lack of customers.
"It is bittersweet," said General Manager John Harren. "It's the end of an era."
The Municipal Utilities Commission made the decision to shut down the district heat system back in May 2017, giving customers three years to transfer over to a new system. The call to close the power plant was made in November 2019. Both decisions were also approved by the Willmar City Council.
"It needed to be done for environmental reasons and financial reasons," Harren said.
Power plant operator Steve Gehrke showed up for his typical 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift at the Willmar Power Plant for the last time Tuesday morning. Since the first power plant began operating in 1895, the facility has been supervised 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
After his shift ended, it was the first time in around 125 years that the operating station was not staffed by an employee overnight.
Gehrke, who is retiring after 25 years, said that it’s a good feeling to be done working at the plant.
“I’m lucky that I get to retire and might not have to work full time again,” said Gehrke. “When I handed John (Harren) my retirement slips, it’s like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Harren said the operators have a big responsibility.
There are still six staff members working in the power plant. Following the closure there should be approximately two weeks of work, including disconnecting the rental boiler used for district heat since 2018 and draining the backup boilers in the plant.
Harren said it is possible some of the remaining Power Plant workers could be laid off. Most of the power plant staff have already transferred to other jobs within Willmar Municipal Utilities or found employment elsewhere, plus the one retirement.
The power plant itself could remain standing for a few more years.
"It's a gradual process of closing down the plant. The facility is not going to be vacant and there will still be people managing the site over the next few years. This is critical infrastructure so there will still be smaller operations going on as we figure out what our next steps will be," said Kevin Marti, Facilities and Maintenance Supervisor.
Willmar Municipal Utilities is in the process of completing two phases of environmental studies on the property, to see what challenges could be lurking when it comes to tearing down or repurposing the hefty brick building at Seventh Street and Benson Avenue Southwest. Sections of that plant were constructed back in 1925.
"We hope to have that report in August," Harren said. "There will be more to come on that."
At its peak, the district heat system provided warmth for approximately 400 customers. By 2017 that number was down to about 200, because even then, district heat cost more than other heating options such as natural gas.
"District heat was more expensive. We had half of our customers transfer over to their own system" prior to the decision to shut it down, Harren said.
As of two weeks ago there were still about 60 customers, though most of them were working on installing a new heating system. Harren said the decommission has been a challenge for customers, but in the long run they will probably be saving money.
Both the power plant and district heat were going to need very expensive upgrades to keep them reliable. For district heat customers, that would have meant massive rate increases.
"It was going to double our costs if we were going to make the investments needed," Harren said.
In the power plant, it has been close to two years since any electricity was produced. Willmar Municipal Utilities rented a smaller boiler in 2018 to produce the steam needed to run the district heat system. Today, close to all of Willmar's power is purchased on the market, which is nearly 10 cents cheaper per kilowatt than if the power plant would produce it.
"It was local, but it was expensive power," Harren said about the power plant.
Even if it was running full-steam, year-round, the power plant would never produce all the electricity the city needs. Willmar, on average, uses 50 megawatts an hour. The power plant would only be capable of producing around 18.
"That plant only covered a third of the power for the community, even when it was functional," Harren said.
The Municipal Utilities Commission has approved a catastrophic event plant, in the event the city needs to produce local power due to an emergency such as a transmission failure or weather event. Willmar Municipal Utilities will rent seven 2-megawatt diesel generators from Ziegler CAT. Those, plus the emergency diesel generators the utilities' already owns will be able to provide power to a section of town at a time.
Closing the plant and district heat has been a discussion item at the Municipal Utilities Commission table for years. A Burns and McDonnell cost study in 2014 said it was not financially feasible for the utility provider to continue operating district heat. Now that the end has finally come, Harren said both the plant and district heat did their jobs.
"In its day it was a very reliable, very dependable system," Harren said. "It served its community well."