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Willmar Municipal Utilities had a good 2021, even with those pesky squirrels

All in all, 2021 was a good year for Willmar Municipal Utilities, as it was able to provide power to its customers 99.999% of the time, hitting the yearly goal for the provider. WMU continues to work on a variety of electrical projects including installing new street lights in downtown Willmar, switching all lights in the city to LED, upgrading substations and working toward the upcoming demolition of the power plant.

A squirrel forages sticks and leaves from the ground in the front yard of a Willmar residence March 1, 2022.
Electricity flowed through the power lines and into the homes and businesses of Willmar Municipal Utilities customers 99.999% of the time in 2021. And when outages did occur, they were mostly short and easy to rectify. One of the largest causes of power outage last year — squirrels. They caused a quarter of the power outages. In this photo, a squirrel forages sticks and leaves from the ground in the front yard of a Willmar residence March 1, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The squirrel, bane of bird feeders everywhere, can also be a bit of a pest for Willmar Municipal Utilities.

Out of the 31 power outages recorded in 2021, a quarter of them were caused by squirrels. They've been so much of a problem over the years that Willmar Municipal Utilities installed animal guards on some of its electrical lines, especially in areas where squirrels are plentiful.

"We've noticed a big reduction in outages caused by squirrels," now that those guards are in place, said Ed Zurn, line department supervisor. "It is paying off."

A look into the escapades of Willmar's squirrel population was only a small part of the annual update from the engineering and line departments provided to the Municipal Utilities Commission at the Feb. 25 meeting. On the whole, 2021 was a good year for the utilities. It met its annual reliability goal, saw outages drop from the year before, completed long-term projects and continued work on others.

"Everything was much better last year than the previous year," said Zurn.

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Willmar Municipal Utilities was able to provide electricity on demand 99.999% of the time in 2021, the goal it hopes to achieve each year. Most of the 31 outages were short in duration and impacted few customers. In 2020, there were 56 outages.

"That is the goal we shoot for, is five 9s," Zurn said. "A lot of the time, it is one or two big outages that make the differences."

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A close-up of the new downtown Willmar LED streetlight. Willmar Municipal Utilities plans to start installing the new lights this year.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
WILLMAR - The street and sidewalk lights in downtown Willmar, installed in the early 1980s, are starting to show their age. Parts to keep them operating are hard to find and the equipment itself can not be upgraded to the more efficient LED fixtures.

Moving forward in 2022, Willmar Municipal Utilities plans to replace all the downtown Willmar lights with new decorative LEDs. It is a project that has been in the works for a few years, with both the utilities and the city sharing the cost of the new lights.

The utilities will also continue its work of replacing all the bulbs in the streetlights across the city with LED bulbs. Staff hopes to finish the project in 2022. So far there has been a 36% reduction in the energy used to power the streetlights, enough to power 108 homes for an entire year.

"A significant reduction there," said General Manager John Harren.

On the transmission side of things, upgrades continue at the South, Priam and Willmar substations. Then construction is set to be completed on the brand-new power plant substation in November 2022. The substation is necessary to take over the transmission equipment that is currently housed in the Willmar Power Plant.

"This is just getting going," said Jeron Smith, staff electrical engineer.

Once the power plant substation is completed and online, attention can turn to the demolition of the old power plant. At the Feb. 25 commission meeting, a contract with Braun Intertec, for $297,549, was approved. The firm will oversee the demolition of the plant, which is scheduled to begin this fall and be completed in 2023.

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Demolition of the Willmar Power Plant is set to begin this fall, after construction of the new substation nearby has been completed.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
The demolition of the Willmar Power Plant in downtown Willmar looks to be a sure thing, now that the deadline has passed for anyone interested in purchasing the structure. The plant most likely will come down in 2023, after a new downtown substation is constructed to house the power controls that are currently in the plant.

While the update mostly focused on the electric side of the utilities, the commission also reviewed what will be discussed with the Willmar City Council at upcoming meetings. This will include the needed improvements at the Northeast Water Treatment Plant, estimated to cost around $25 million.

Willmar Municipal Utilities has applied for state bonding funds to help pay for the project, but the utilities are also preparing to have to raise water rates to pay for the work. A rate study will be completed in 2022 and the utilities is expecting a significant increase in water rates, especially if there is no help coming from the state.

Willmar Municipal Utilities will also be restarting the planning for a new building, a priority that has taken a backseat over the last few years. In 2022, the utilities will be looking at possible sites, or perhaps a land swap with the city of Willmar.

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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