September 23, 2010 at 9:02 a.m.

North Branch Water & Light proceeds on long-range generating upgrade

North Branch Water & Light proceeds on long-range generating upgrade
North Branch Water & Light proceeds on long-range generating upgrade

The heart of a $3.2 million makeover, vital to the well being of residents in the North Branch area, can be found in a cluster of buildings in downtown North Branch. But it's a safe bet few people know what's happening in this city block south of the Olde Brick Inn.

North Branch Water & Light recently received approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to move ahead on replacing massive electricity generating engines that are 50-plus years old.

Build America Bonds will be financing the project and the package is nearly ready to market.

The Water & Light general manager says, "...the best news in town" is ratepayers won't even see any additional charges for this work.

Russ Good explained North Branch Water & Light Commission sought the PCA authorization after it negotiated a 25-year contract extension with its electricity supplier, the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA.) One of the stipulations in the contract is that North Branch Water & Light will upgrade generation capacity and the commission wanted to be clear that existing state permits are okay with this.

Good explained that the results of an audit done by SMMPA about three years ago resulted in the agency notifying its approximately 18 member non-profits to take a look at costs. Good said obsolete equipment expenses were driving up the price of providing kilowatt hours to all members.

North Branch came in number four-- behind three other Minnesota cities identified in the audit-- so something had to be done.

Good explained some cities will simply be terminated by the association and probably abandon their local operations, rather than make the upgrades.

North Branch opted for making changes.

As a strong proponent of providing electric service locally, Good says maintaining water and light's peaking facility in North Branch is important for several reasons.

The people who work for North Branch Water & Light are also customers. They take pride in serving their community. They live close by, so if there's dangerous weather or emergency the response is swift. And, it's nice that customers can still drop-off their payments right at the office. Customer service staff know the territory.

The ultimate goal of the Water & Light Commission is, "We will have a reliable and robust system capable of serving every customer in our service area," said the GM.

Right now, if a widespread power outage hits the service territory NB Water & Light can't generate enough electricity locally to meet demand. Everyday power is bought off the SMMPA grid, but in the event the in-town engines are needed to supplement a certain level of power demand, customers would be left in the dark.

New engines will boost the output to 10.75 megawatts. It is currently 6 megawatts.

Another benefit to the new engines and system improvements is "quick start" capability. The new Caterpillar units fire up in minutes and don't require the manual oversight the old engines do.

Comparing the eight and 12 cylinder Fairbanks Morse engines to the incoming 16 cylinder Cat engines is night and day.

The new diesel-fueled units could arrive anytime. SMMPA will haul away the old engines and they'll be recycled for parts. Good said he'll get a few days' notice on delivery.

There's plenty to do in the meantime to get ready for the upgrade. Voltage throughout town has been changed. A small substation on-site is being replaced, a fuel tank is being moved, a new industrial sized water filter is coming.

A front end loader was breaking apart and removing the floor of the old city water treatment building the day we visited, so new equipment can fit in the old building.

Re-using structures is nothing new to Good. Two existing engines are housed inside what was the old North Branch city fire hall.

A garage that once stored the ambulance rigs for Lakes Area EMS is now sheltering Water & Light vehicles.

Good says there's nothing wrong with the location, and the solid brick buildings are historic and familiar. The new engines are small (relatively speaking) so they'll fit into current space and will be sound-proofed to an even greater extent than what's buffering operations now.

If all goes well, nobody will have anything to gripe about and that's just the way Good likes it.

FYI....

The SMMPA is the nation's fourth leading supplier of power.

About 13 percent of its power is generated through renewables like wind, burning landfill gas, etc. The Sherco 3 coal-fired power plant, near Becker, is its main source of power.


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