Utilities Commission will use study results to guide decision on the future of the city of Willmar's nearly 60-year-old power plant

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities' coal-fired power plant is an important and valuable asset that, with some upgrading, can provide useful and economic value for many years to come.

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities' coal-fired power plant is an important and valuable asset that, with some upgrading, can provide useful and economic value for many years to come.

With that thought in mind, a consultant is studying possible upgrades that local officials will consider in deciding the future of the 59-year-old electric generating plant. A report from PCi Management and Consulting Company of Schaumburg, Ill., is expected at the end of the year.

At that time, the Municipal Utilities Commission could decide whether or not the downtown plant should continue to generate power for electric customers and hot water for the downtown heating system.

Bruce Gomm, general manager of the Willmar Municipal Utilities, says it doesn't make much sense to make capital investment into the plant if it's going to be shut down in a couple of years. He said the commission has not decided for sure to keep the power plant, but the commission has been incrementally moving in that direction.

"We haven't made a final, 100 percent decision, but the Planning Committee, the utility and myself are leaning toward it looks like -- for the foreseeable future -- the power plant is going to be a good asset to have here in Willmar,'' said Gomm.


"I think when the PCi study is done and we have actual numbers of what it will take to be able to implement the upgrades or the changes we need to do to the plant, I think that's when the commission will make the final decision on investing in the plant or not,'' he said.

PCi President C.J. Turk said he believes there's an opportunity for the Willmar power plant to reduce production costs.

The PCi study, which began in October, will collect data and operating information; evaluate equipment; evaluate optional fuels; prepare a plan to reduce particulate emissions; recommend upgrades; and prepare cost estimates.

Also, PCi will recommend a structural evaluation of the foundation supporting the two coal storage silos. PCi said the concrete in the foundation is degrading.

The power plant has three boilers, but only two are connected to generators. The third boiler is called a package boiler. It's used as a backup when the generators are down and provides heat for the heating district.

The plant has a capacity to produce between 16 and 17 megawatts of power; however, air pollution particulate regulations limit electrical output using coal to 6 to 7 megawatts. If the utility must generate more than 7 megawatts, the natural gas boilers are fired up.

Natural gas is more expensive than coal, however. The cost of power using coal is about $45 per megawatt compared with $70 to $80 per megawatt using natural gas.

The utility also leases diesel generators to provide additional power, but the cost of power using diesel fuel is about $180 per megawatt.


"So it's a significant savings to be able to generate with coal,'' Gomm said.

He said improvements being studied by PCi, such as a bag house filter, would help the plant comply with air pollution control regulations and help the plant boost energy output with coal.

PCi will study the possibility of using alternative fuels and biofuels. However, an earlier study said the availability of biofuel is limited.

The study will look at the issue of dust from the stockpiling and handling of coal. The power plant burns from 45,000 to 50,000 tons of coal a year. Coal dust can be a problem during windy conditions, Gomm acknowledges.

"We're concerned about that issue, so we're going to be addressing that also,'' he said.

Gomm said he, the commission and the utility are dedicated to providing the most economical energy for the community. He has not heard much public feedback on the power plant issue. However, he said several commissioners have talked to their counterparts at utility meetings who say they are glad they have local generation in their town.

"They look at it as a valuable asset and that's also the way I look at it,'' Gomm said. "It isn't always the lowest-cost generation. There are times when you can actually buy power on the market cheaper than what we can generate ourselves, but that's without taking into effect the benefits of having the heating district there, along with the benefits of having local control over generation.''

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