Idled Shiras plant subject of discussion at panel’s meeting

From left, Marquette Board of Light and Power Chairman Tom Tourville, Vice Chairman David Puskala and board member Jerry Irby discuss the future of BLP’s coal-fired Shiras Steam Plant in south Marquette as attorney Ken Seavoy, BLP Executive Director Tom Carpenter and Mary Adamini, director of personnel and employee relations, listen. (Journal photo by Jaymie Depew)

MARQUETTE — The Marquette Board of Light and Power is following suit of various electric utilities nationwide as officials consider phasing out its only coal-fired power station — the Shiras Steam Plant.

The BLP held a meeting Tuesday where board members discussed the future of Shiras and reasons the south Marquette plant was placed in a layup status early Friday.

“Shiras came offline at 12:51 Friday morning,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the BLP. “The dock was completely empty of coal. It’s been 51 years since there hasn’t been coal on the dock near the plant.”

BLP officials say the goal is to rely more heavily on the newer natural gas-fueled Marquette Energy Center and purchase power from the grid to replace Shiras as the primary supply of energy. Monday was the first official day running the MEC as the primary source.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Carpenter said it costs around $48,000 per day to run Shiras and $32,000 to run the MEC.

A recent study conducted by consulting firm Burns and McDonnell revealed, based on current projections, that the BLP could potentially reduce power supply costs by more than $100 million over the next 20 years by taking advantage of the operational flexibility of the new MEC and using the electric grid markets, overseen by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

Another benefit, Carpenter said, is the flexibility of the MEC since it can start running within five minutes, unlike Shiras, which takes around 11 hours. The MEC can also be turned on or off at any time without harming the machines, he said.

BLP Board Chairman Tom Tourville said the data really drives the point home for ratepayers.

“Over a one-day period, 24-hours, for the same electricity we could have spent $48,000 or $32,000, and before the energy center was built we didn’t have that choice,” Tourville said.

Carpenter said the BLP recently reached out to consulting firms to help determine the future of Shiras and the best way to take the plant offline and keep the “integrity of the unit so it stayed in good shape, even though it wasn’t running.”

He said most services estimated around $200,000 just for engineering.

“When we saw that number we kind of put the breaks on it … We said we better have a bigger discussion,” he explained.

Carpenter made a list of capital projects needed to keep Shiras in a layup status, which would include the $900,000 purchase of a heating boiler to keep the heat running.

“This was just the short list,” Carpenter said, explaining there would be more expensive issues with the aging plant in the future.

One current problem at Shiras pertains to the coal combustion residual, Carpenter said, which is a water retention device with settling cells that’s used to catch water used to move ash around in the plant, which is eventually taken to the landfill.

“We can’t just hold that water … so we settle it in the (cell) so we can recycle and and reuse it again,” he said.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently informed the BLP that they will no longer be able to dump coal ash on the holding ponds unless they built new cells, expected to cost between $3 million and $4 million. The BLP has until 2022 to clean up and remove the ash in the holding cells. Carpenter said it’s one of the reasons for shutting Shiras down so that cleaning of the holding cells can begin now.

Marquette resident Jorma Lankinen said the best solution would be to demolish Shiras, which some other consulting firms also suggested.

“That’s probably the best solution. Demolish it and move on instead of spending money,” he said.

John Prince, former BLP board member, echoed Lankinen’s thoughts and said: “The writing has been on the wall … you can’t rest on 40-year-old technology.”

Board members Edward Angeli and Robert Niemi said it’s time to part ways with Shiras.

“A month or two ago I would have said let’s keep it open as long as we can, let’s do what we have to do to make sure we’ve exhausted all of our options before we shut it down — I can’t say that anymore,” Angeli said. “It’s time, and … now we have to … move forward how to dismantle it the least costly way that’s best for everybody.”

Jerry Irby suggested the BLP work closely with the Marquette City Commission to determine the next steps. Tourville agreed and said the BLP sent a mixed message to the public when they said Shiras had another 15 to 20 years of operations left because it was before officials knew the cost and efficiency of Shiras versus the MEC.