Austin’s original power plant probably will be shut down

By Bob Freund

Austin’s original power plant might be mothballed in the next two years after more than eight decades in service.

The generating station, which also supplied steam to some downtown buildings during its history, likely will face retirement after a decision by its operator on Wednesday.

That’s when Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency’s board of directors votes on withdrawing from its current contract with the city of Austin for the use of the plant by year-end 2009. The board meets in Waseca.


Although Austin Utilities owns the plant and supplies the staff to run it, the longtime contract gives SMMPA control of its operation. Once SMMPA’s decision is made, city officials will weigh the future of the plant, Austin Utilities general manager Jerry McCarthy said Monday.

The powerhouse — along with other steam plants in SMMPA’s system — has become obsolete financially for SMMPA. It requires a comparatively long period of time to start generating electricity, and the powerhouse also must be run a minimum of several days to avoid damage to equipment, said Dave Geschwind, SMMPA chief operating officer.

Today’s market prizes plants that can be turned on and off relatively quickly in response to changing market prices. "These steam units are not those units," he said

SMMPA also does not need the plant, which is comparatively small, to supply continuous electricity. Fired by natural gas, it also is fairly expensive to operate constantly.

"It doesn’t run much more than a couple weeks a year," Austin Utilities general manager Jerry McCarthy said Monday.

"Last year it ran two or three days basically for peaking (high demand times)," he said.

Austin has not opposed ending the agreement.

At full operation, it can generate 24 megawatts (million watts) each hour. A second small turbine, generating 5 megawatts, also is located at the downtown plant. It can be fired up quickly, but is expensive to operate, again because of natural gas costs, Geschwind said.


McCarthy said the combustion turbine, which is something like a jet engine, has one significant advantage. It can be used to start up Austin’s other plant, called the Northeast Plant, in an emergency outage situation.

SMMPA’s directors also will vote on ending a contract for a steam plant at Fairmont. Austin’s Northeast Plant and another generating station at Owatonna also are in similar situations, but they are not recommended for consideration by directors on Wednesday.

A version of this story appears today in the Austin Post-Bulletin.

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