Presque Isle Power Plant has long history

The Presque Isle Power Plant is pictured. The plant has had a long history since its beginnings in 1955 to its closure by We Energies on March 31. (Journal file photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part in a series of articles focusing on the recent closure of the Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette.

MARQUETTE — The Presque Isle Power Plant has had a long history since its beginnings in 1955 to its closure by We Energies on March 31.

The Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group, parent company of We Energies, has replaced the electric generation with a pair of natural gas-fired power plants: the F.D. Kuester Generating Station in Negaunee Township and the A.J. Mihm Generating Station in Baraga Township.

The plant’s closing in Marquette was part of the company’s move from coal to natural gas, wind and solar power. Closure of the PIPP is expected to help WEC Energy Group’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 40%, well ahead of its 2030 target.

The plant’s origin, though, dates back to the 1950s.

A peregrine falcon chick is banded at the Presque Isle Power Plant in 2017. The falcon nesting box, with the closure of the plant, has been decommissioned, and other locations for new boxes are being considered in the city of Marquette. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

The Presque Isle Power Plant’s first unit began operating in 1955 with 22 megawatts of power. Initially the plant was capable of providing 153 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

The initial cost of the coal-fired base-load plant was $280 million.

To keep pace with increasing demands, additional generating units were constructed and placed into service starting with Unit 2 in 1962, which had a capacity of 37,500 kilowatts. Unit 3, rated at 58,400 kilowatts, was installed and placed in commercial operation in 1964.

The additions continued until 1979 with Unit 9.

The plant had been jointly owned by Upper Peninsula Power Co. and Cliffs Electric Service company, operating as the Upper Peninsula Generating Co. Wisconsin Electric, a predecessor company to We Energies, purchased the plant in 1988. UPPCO continued to manage, operate and maintain the plant until 1999. At that time, the employees at the plant became We Energies employees.

In 2007, the company retired units 1 and 2, followed by units 3 and 4 in 2009. One interesting side note: According to WEC Energy Group, Unit 1’s turbine is presently operating at a sugarcane refinery in Guatemala.

A fact sheet produced by We Energies noted PIPP was 13 stories high, with major plant functions controlled by operators with computer support to continuously monitor and report on things like pressures and temperatures.

In 2013, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.’s Empire and Tilden mines, located in Marquette County, left We Energies for another electric provider. In early 2015, though, Cliffs announced it would return as a customer of We Energies as part of a multiparty agreement, resulting in discontinuation of the power company’s request for the System Support Resource payments, a form of subsidies imposed on its customers.

Part of that multiparty agreement was for the group to work toward a long-term solution for the U.P.’s power issues, which later resulted in the creation of the Upper Michigan Energy Resources Corp. and its plan to construct two new power plants in the central U.P. to ultimately replace the Presque Isle facility.

Following the loss of the mining company as a customer, We Energies attempted to suspend operations and later close the Presque Isle plant, but the regional grid oversight entity, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, forced the plant to remain open for reliability purposes. Having lost its largest customer, We Energies then sought the SSR payments.

“After Cliffs returned as a customer, we withdrew our intention to retire the plant, which ended the need for further SSR payments,” said WEC Energy Group spokeswoman Amy Jahns in an email.

The fate of the falcons

Among the PIPP’s most famous residents were the peregrine falcons that nested every year in a box on one of the chimneys. So, what’s to become of them now that the plant is decommissioned?

Wildlife officials are looking into finding them a new home.

We Energies’ effort to re-establish peregrine falcons, whose populations declined because of pesticides that weakened their egg shells and led to death before hatching, began in the early 1990s.

Since 1997, nest boxes at its various We Energies power plants have produced numerous falcon young. Boxes were installed at the plants since falcons are attracted to tall structures along lakes or rivers.

The Presque Isle Power Plant was one of those locations, with a webcam set up so people could view the fledglings during nesting season, as was the case with other plant falcon boxes.

With the closing of the PIPP, however, comes the closing of the falcon nest box.

Brian Roell, a Marquette-based wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said in an email he has contacted Northern Michigan University’s maintenance supervisor to explore the possibility of placing a nest box on Cohodas Hall.

“From our conversations, I believe we will get the OK from the NMU administration,” Roell said.

Falcons also have been using the Shiras Steam Plant in south Marquette, which is set to be demolished within a few years.

“Because the birds are very territorial, I have not been looking for alternative site on that end of town,” he said.

Roell said that after being in contact with We Energies, he is talking over nest box placement at Snowberry Heights as well.

Karen Cleveland, a DNR wildlife biologist based in Lansing, said in an email, “While there is no legal requirement that a building manager install a nest box when there are peregrine falcons in the area, many have found them useful in reducing the number of pigeons that roost on their building and have embraced playing host to this state-listed endangered species.”

Seventeen young peregrines were produced at We Energies sites in 2018, according to the company website at we-energies.com — 15 in Wisconsin and two in Michigan. The total number of peregrines produced at We Energies power plants in Wisconsin reached 251 in 2018, and the additional 22 peregrines produced at the Presque Isle Power Plant brings the We Energies total to 273.

The PIPP nest site had been active since 2011.

The 2018 nesting report indicated two male falcons — named Tim and Dan — were hatched between May 29-30 and received U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands on June 16.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.