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Willmar Municipal Utilities struggles to stockpile coal

WILLMAR -- Like a squirrel and its winter stores, Willmar Municipal Utilities is starting to build a stockpile of coal, so it is ready when the winter winds blow. However, transportation lags are causing some concerns.

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A Willmar Municipal Utilities worker in this October 2015 photo operates a front-end loader on the utilities' coal pile to make room for receiving more. Willmar Municipal Utilities is trying to stockpile coal for this winter, but railroad deliveries are lagging. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- Like a squirrel and its winter stores, Willmar Municipal Utilities is starting to build a stockpile of coal, so it is ready when the winter winds blow. However, transportation lags are causing some concerns.

Because the Willmar power plant can burn both coal and natural gas, the utility usually decides which fuel to use each month depending on price. Most of the time coal is cheaper. However, right now, despite coal being the cheaper option, the power plant is using natural gas to produce electricity. The reason is the utility is having difficulty in receiving shipments of coal using BNSF Railway, said Jon Folkedahl, director of electric production.

“This is where it is nice to have a dual-fire plant,” Folkedahl said.

The issue of coal deliveries was raised during Monday’s meeting of the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission.

Folkedahl said he does not know why the railroad is having problems getting the coal to Willmar.

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Willmar Municipal Utilities is allowed to stockpile 7,000 tons of coal on site, which Folkedahl said would be approximately a month’s supply. The utility has a standing order for two deliveries of coal a month, Folkedahl said.

Having a pile of coal ready for use in the winter can be a very important, as the utility does not have a guaranteed supply of natural gas in the winter. Willmar Utilities has a natural gas supply contract that can be interrupted if customers ahead of WIllmar, especially in the east, need the natural gas supply, Folkedahl explained. When Willmar is cut off from natural gas, it turns to coal burning.

While not having a guaranteed natural gas supply in the winter might seem risky, Folkedahl said the contract the utility uses is 25 percent less than a guaranteed one.

“We balance risk and reward,” Folkedahl said.

WInd turbines

Folkedahl also updated the commission this week on the utilities’ two wind turbines, which have been having issues. In addition to an oil leak, the utilities has also been dealing with a communication problem. DeWind, which is based in Korea, physically moved its servers and now it’s been difficult to collect data from the turbines.

“Whatever they did seemed to cause us problems,” Folkedahl said.

Adding to the problem is that the company in Korea is on holiday until Aug. 7, making it impossible to fix the communication concerns.

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“We are still limping through,” Folkedahl.

Folkedahl said he estimates the turbines produced about 600,000 kilowatt-hours in June, the best June since 2011.

Regarding the oil leak, Folkedahl said a team of technicians from Litchfield will be coming to take a look at the turbines, because DeWind has been unable to provide the help needed.

Two Willmar Municipal Utilities technicians traveled to Oklahoma for turbine technician training and passed the test. Folkedahl said the plan is to send them again for further training so that they reach the level of technician needed by the utilities.

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