Power plant, 80, might get to retire

By Bob Freund

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

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 has 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, by year-end 2009, from its contract with the city of Austin for the use of the plant. 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," said Geschwind.

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," 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, the plant 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, 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.

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