End of Willmar's coal era: Municipal Utilities to sell remaining tons as natural gas meets needs
WILLMAR — While Willmar Municipal Utilities made the decision late last year to primarily burn natural gas at the Willmar Power Plant, the stock pile of thousands of tons of coal remained as a backup fuel source. Those days are now over, as Willmar Municipal Utilities continues the process of decommissioning district heat and perhaps moving toward shutting down the plant completely.
"We don't need the coal pile for generation," General Manager John Harren said. "We don't see any reason to hang on to it."
At Monday's meeting of Municipal Utilities Commission, members agreed with the staff decision to sell the remaining 3,200 tons of coal currently sitting out behind the power plant.
"We would be at a break-even to sell the coal rather than burn it," Power Supply Manager Chris Carlson said.
Willmar Municipal Utilities purchased the coal from a mine in Montana. It was then shipped by train directly to the power plant, where it was piled behind the plant.
There are three main reasons why the utilities is turning away from coal. The first is staffing levels at the power plant. With the changes coming to the power plant within the next two years — the pending shutdown of the district heating program — some employees have already left for other opportunities, leaving fewer available to run the big coal-burning boilers.
The second reason is the utilities' air permit requirements from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the quality of the remaining coal. As the coal sits unprotected outside, it has begun to deteriorate. To meet its air quality standards, Willmar Municipal Utilities will need to burn natural gas along with the coal.
Harren explained that with firm natural gas contracts in place, which provide enough natural gas to meet district heat needs during the year, there will not be a need for a backup fuel source for the plant.
Also, the longer the coal sits there, the more the quality decreases.
"The longer we hang on to it, the less it is worth to us," Harren said. "The sooner we sell it, the better off we are going to be."
The third issue is all economics. It is cheaper to burn natural gas than coal. Cost is also why Willmar Municipal Utilities is turning away from self-generating power at the plant altogether. It is more economical for Willmar Municipal Utilities to purchase all of its power needs on the open market, instead of producing some at the plant.
"We are far better off to purchase energy on the market than generate the energy. Just the cost of the coal and gas alone far outweighs the cost of the energy on the market," Carlson said, adding that doesn't include the cost of labor at the plant to produce the power.
With the commission's blessing, staff will now put the coal pile up for sale. Once a buyer is found, trucks will start to haul it away.
Commission chairwoman Carol Laumer said this is a momentous occasion for Willmar Municipal Utilities.
"Coal burning is going to be done in Willmar," Laumer said.