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Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission to decide whether to permanently shut down power plant

With the district heat program coming to an end, the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission needs to decide whether to shut the power plant down completely or keep it for emergency power generation. The commission met in a work session Tuesday to discuss the issue. Staff members are recommending closing the plant and installing infrastructure that will allow Willmar Municipal Utilities to rent diesel generators in case of a catastrophic power failure in Willmar.

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The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission met on Tuesday in a work session discuss the future of the downtown Willmar power plant. Once the district heat system shuts down next summer, the plant will no longer be needed for daily operations. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission has a huge decision in front of it and the decision is in the shape of its nearly 95-year-old power plant. The commission met in a work session Tuesday to discuss whether the plant has a future going forward.

"This is a momentous work session I believe," said Carol Laumer, commission president. "Lots of things have changed. We are looking at even more changes as we go along."

The hope is for the commission to decide at either its Nov. 12 or Nov. 25 meeting whether to keep the plant as an emergency generation source or decommission it completely.

"We would like to have the decision sooner rather than later. We will have it on our Tuesday agenda for action," said John Harren, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager.

There has been no electricity generated at the downtown Willmar plant for nearly 18 months. A rental boiler that sits outside produces the steam needed to keep the soon-to-be-decommissioned district heating system operational through the upcoming winter. The district heating system will be shut down at 11:59 p.m. June 30, 2020.

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"(The power plant) is currently existing for district heat," said Facilities and Maintenance Supervisor Kevin Marti. "After that time, what is its purpose?"

Willmar Municipal Utilities purchases most of the city's electricity on the power market through contracts and through its membership in the Missouri River Energy Services joint action agency. In 2018, the average price on the market was $.064 per kilowatt-hour. In early 2018, when power was still being produced at the power plant, it cost approximately $0.15 per kilowatt-hour to make electricity. Buying power is cheaper and keeps customer rates from rising.

After district heat

The only purpose the plant could have going forward would be as an emergency generation source. If the city's power system was hit by a catastrophic event, such as a tornado or transmission failure, the power plant could possibly be used to supply some power to the city.

Willmar Municipal Utilities staff researched two potential options for the plant. Completely draining the plant so that it won't freeze, known as a cold stand-by, is impossible and keeping it in a warm stand-by mode instead requires heating the building and having seven licensed staff on hand to run it when it's needed.

"The plant is not designed to be a stand-by generation source," Marti said. "It likes to work, it doesn't like to sit still."

Keeping the plant would bring costs in maintenance, equipment and labor. The plant is showing its age and many of its systems need work. The oldest portion of the plant was built in 1925, with several additions constructed through the years.

A new 150-horsepower boiler for about $200,000 would be needed to keep the plant warm. According to estimates, it would cost about $643,421 per year to run the plant as a stand-by generation source. A turbine overhaul would be about $1 million every five years and there is approximately $510,000 in deferred plant maintenance that is due.

"We would have to address a rate adjustment to keep the plant operational," Marti said.

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These concerns with the power plant's condition, and the costs associated with keeping the plant operational, led staff to recommend shutting it down completely.

"We feel we have a safer, more reliable and more affordable option to present to you," Marti said.

Catastrophic generation

For emergency generation, Willmar Municipal Utilities could rent four, 2-megawatt diesel generators from Ziegler Caterpillar only when needed. There are 15 to 20 such generators located within a day of Willmar.

"These units are out there. Ziegler CAT is capable of doing this," Marti said.

There would be one-time infrastructure costs between $150,000 and $200,000 to install step-up transformers at the power substation located at the power plant to put the power on to the grid.

To run the generators for seven days, 24 hours a day, it would cost approximately $417,000, which includes fuel. If the disaster is a federally declared emergency, there could be the opportunity to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Costs are only incurred on an as-needed basis," unlike the annual costs the power plant would require, Marti said. "If we never have that disaster, we never spend the money."

Willmar Municipal Utilities already has four diesel generators for supplemental and emergency generation. They can produce 12 megawatts of power, covering about 36 percent of the city's average load, or 21 percent of its peak load.

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The average load in Willmar is about 33 megawatts a day. The highest load in 2019 was almost 58 megawatts at 3 p.m. July 15.

If the commission approves staff's catastrophic event generation plan, Willmar Municipal Utilities would have 20 megawatts of emergency power generation available. That comes to 61 percent of the average load or 34 percent of the peak load. This does not include any power the wind turbines might produce at the same time.

Rolling blackouts would be a possibility if the entire city lost power, but that would be true even if the plant was still operational, instead of renting the four generators, Harren said. The power plant does not have the capacity to produce enough power for the entire city.

Decommission and demo

If the Utilities Commission approves shutting down the plant, that does not mean it will be demolished soon after June 30, 2020.

"That discussion is about three years out, at minimum," Harren said.

The plant houses a lot of controls and computer servers used in delivering power to customers around Willmar. Those systems would be kept in place until Willmar Municipal Utilities decides whether to build a new office and service center facility in the next few years.

Only after those controls are moved would the plant come down. There would be research done to see if the building could be repurposed, though that would be a very expensive enterprise.

A few contractors have gone through the plant and the demolition estimate is around $5 million. Nearly two-thirds of that is asbestos removal. There is significant infrastructure below the ground and a lot of concrete, so the project would be a big one. The demolition would also include reclaiming the site, so a huge hole is not left behind.

"It is ridiculously massive," Marti said.

Related Topics: ENERGY AND MINING
Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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