A powerful piece of Marquette history
MARQUETTE — Once a bustling facility filled with employees and the sounds of its turbines, generators and boilers, the interior of Marquette’s retired Shiras Steam Plant is largely quiet today, with the exception of the low, constant hum emitted by the facility’s lights.
The Shiras Steam Plant, a coal-fired power electric generating station owned and operated by the Marquette Board of Light and Power, was built in 1967, placed in layup status in June 2018, and officially retired in March, BLP officials said.
Just over a year after the plant was placed in layup status, attendees of a tour held Wednesday had a chance to explore the retired facility and learn about its history, current status and future.
“Really the key to this tour to me was a little piece of history,” BLP Executive Director Tom Carpenter told attendees. “And maybe a perspective on what this building provided to the community for such a long period of time.”
The tour was organized by the Marquette Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Marquette Board of Light and Power for the chamber’s What’s Brewing series of events.
Carpenter, as well as other BLP staff members, guided attendees through the facility, showing them the retired steam plant’s generation equipment, control rooms, complex network of pipes, and more.
Participants were able to stand amongst the three retired power generation units at the plant that provided much of Marquette’s electricity over the past decades while marveling at the plant’s high ceilings, grated floors and complex network of staircases.
Beyond the generation equipment, tools, office supplies, signs, and a bit of residual coal ash could also be seen by the light emitted from two massive windows facing Lake Superior and Lake Street, showing evidence of the facility’s long history and relatively recent retirement.
The plant and its first generating unit were built in 1967 in response to a growing demand for energy in the Marquette area, which had its energy provided by a combination of hydroelectric and diesel power from the 1920s through the 1960s, Carpenter told attendees.
“Back in the early 60s, they got the idea that we were going to need more power in the community and a bigger plant,” Carpenter said. “So they bonded some money and built this unit.”
During its nearly 50 years of operation, the plant expanded, eventually housing three separate power generating units, he said.
The 12.5-mW unit one, which was built in 1967, ran through the 1980s before being taken out of service for “a variety of mechanical reasons,” Carpenter said. Unit two, with a 21-mW capacity, was built in 1972 and ran until several years ago.
The 44.0-mW unit three, which ran until June 2018, was built in 1983 and became “the primary resource and supply of 90-plus percent of the power for Marquette, Michigan (and) nine surrounding townships,” for nearly 40 years, Carpenter said.
The steam plant employed 40 to 50 people at its peak, Carpenter said.
“For what it’s worth, all of those people still work for the Board of Light and Power,” he said. “We have needs for them on the other side of town at our new plant among other things, so nobody got laid off.”
While Shiras was operational, it burned around 200,000 tons of coal each year but was ranked as one of the cleanest coal-fired plants in the nation based on its sulfur dioxide emission rates, Carpenter said.
However, just over 50 years after the first unit was built, the Board of Light and Power placed the facility in a layup status in June 2018. In March, the BLP Board of Directors officially made the decision to retire the plant, Carpenter said.
This occurred after the BLP built the Marquette Energy Center, or MEC, which is located along Wright Street in Marquette. The MEC consists of three 18-mW Wartsila reciprocating internal combustion engines that are primarily fueled by natural gas.
The MEC was initially built for added reliability, Carpenter said, but the BLP quickly found out it “could operate that in an efficient way that could save everybody a lot of money over a period of time.”
A power supply planning analysis study by consulting firm Burns and McDonnell in August 2017 revealed that the BLP could potentially reduce power supply costs by over $100 million during the next two decades due to the MEC’s operational flexibility and use of electric grid markets overseen by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, officials said previously.
This eventually led to the BLP deciding to take the Shiras Steam Plant offline permanently and retire it, pulling all of its permits.
“We have no intention of bringing this back online,” Carpenter said.
With the Shiras Steam Plant retired, the BLP is preparing for the long and complex process of decommissioning the plant, he said.
“We’re beginning the process. We have a need to get some consultants and contractors on board to help us, because we’re not experts in demolition by any stretch of (the) imagination. We’re more the type of people who build stuff, do things, so we need some external help,” Carpenter said. “And once that’s on board, we’ll develop plans to start remediating the building internally and then eventually (demolishing) the outside.”
The decommissioning, remediation and demolition of the plant is estimated to be a multiyear project, Carpenter said, noting “it’s a long process” that could take two to three years, with the interior portion of the process alone taking about a year.
However, some portions of the plant’s campus will be here to stay, serving as reminders of the steam plant that operated along South Lake Street in Marquette for over 50 years.
“That substation there, it’s staying. That’s still actively being used,” Carpenter said. “The dock out front is still being used. (Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.) drops limestone on that dock. It’s still a municipal dock. So there are things here that aren’t going away.”
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.