Work progresses at Fairmont Energy Station

FAIRMONT – From a pedestrian’s viewpoint, the power plant on North Main Street in Fairmont may look like it’s complete, but about 85 percent of the project remains, according to the facility’s management.

“Frankly, I think our building is beautiful. I’m proud of it,” said Todd Machin, plant and generation project manager.

Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency purchased the site of Fairmont’s old steam-powered energy plant for $500,000 in April 2011. Fairmont is one of 18 cities that belongs to SMMPA, which generates, buys and sells power to its members.

SMMPA had actually been studying the location since 2008, said Machin. Behind the scenes in 2009 and 2010, SMMPA was working on permitting; then after buying the site, demolition of most of the old plant began the summer of 2011.

The portion of the building housing two dual-fuel engines that burn diesel and natural gas was kept intact, but the rest was razed, since the cost of running the city’s old steam-powered engines made it impractical to keep them.

The new building began to go up in 2012, and the shell of the new plant is mostly complete. Inside, the cavernous room that will house four natural gas-fired reciprocating internal combustion engines still has a dirt floor, but not for long.

“The real main part of the project doesn’t start for two to three weeks,” Machin said.

Mid-February is when the engines will start arriving by railcar. Each weighs about 193,000 pounds, and they’ll be slipped into the plant through a garage door, then slid onto their foundations.

“It’s a complicated process, but the Egyptians did it. … The concept has been the same the past 3,000 years,” Machin said.

Arriving at a later date will be the generators, which weigh 85,000 pounds a piece.

Then the hook-ups will begin, to the coolant system, emissions control and various other subsystems. Describing the different components and how the engines will work, Machin said, “it’s very comparable to a big truck, only multiply it times 50.”

The main difference is these engines run on natural gas, not diesel, which means they’re much more energy-efficient, cleaner-burning and quieter than diesel.

“A lot of environmental assessment went into the project,” Machin said.

Completion of Fairmont Energy Station is estimated for November or December of this year.

“This spring and summer, it’ll be gangbusters, all hands on deck. We’ll be going like crazy,” Machin said.

Once operations begin, the plant will be capable of generating 25 megawatts, about the same as the old plant. The new facility is expected to run 1,800 to 2,000 hours per year, practically every working day, depending of course on natural gas prices. In contrast, the old steam-powered engines were so inefficient they were rarely used.

“It was very expensive with high emissions,” Machin said.

There are several other environmental improvements with the new plant. The former plant drew thousands of gallons of water from George Lake, which the new site will not require. The old plant also was not as sound-proof.

SMMPA was required by the state to meet sound limits based on zoning. To the south is industrial, but to the north is a residential zone.

“We have a pre-cast concrete building specifically designed for sound absorption,” Machin said.

The agency also purchased two houses to the north, and the city vacated part of a street, in order to increase the plant’s sound buffer. If needed, after the engines are installed and tested, the site has room for an additional sound barrier, which Machin was confident would not be needed.

“But we have a mitigation plan just in case,” he said.

The estimated cost for the project is $25 million to $30 million, and the agency will make payments in lieu of taxes to the city.