Power plant touts accident-free status

SHERBURN – The Fox Lake power-generating station north of Sherburn quietly hit a rare and remarkable milestone earlier this week.

The natural gas fire-powered facility has gone 32 years without any accidents. The plant began operations in 1950, and currently runs two of the four units installed at the facility.

“The employees there have much to be proud of,” said Ryan Stensland, a spokesperson for Alliant Energy, which owns the plant. “Fox Lake is seen as having a great safety record, and having a facility that is able to do this gives a company-wide sense of pride.”

The plant provides reliability to the distribution system to meet demands on the grid.

“The plant helps us meet that demand every day,” Stensland said.

Some of the risks at the Fox Lake plant include how electricity is created there using a combustion process.

“They heat up the water, which creates steam, which helps the turbines run,” Stensland explained. “There are potential issues with the boilers, the turbines and the fuel itself. … There is always a level of safety concern, but the employees help mitigate the risk with training and experience. They know the nuts and bolts of how these turbines run.”

Stensland added that many of the employees at the plant have been there the entire 32 years of its safety record, with some there even longer.

“It’s a great story and testament to them, because they’re living our safety values everyday,” he said.

However, the Fox Lake power plant will not see an additional 32 years of safety. The plant is slated to be retired sometime before new regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency take effect.

“We have announced the anticipated retirement of the units (at the Fox Lake plant) around 2016,” Stensland said.

The regulations that were announced in 2011 took aim at plants that burn coal or have the ability to burn coal.

“Fox Lake was one of the first commercial plants to switch from coal to natural gas in the 1990s,” Stensland said. “But now, we have the options of either investment or complying, and our approach is investing in our newer, larger facilities. Fox Lake falls in a gray area; we can continue to invest in it if it’s cost-efficient for our customers. So a closing date isn’t written in stone. It’s depending on the grid: If we need to stay online for another two to five years to meet the demand, then we will do that.”

Out of the four turbines at the facility, only two are in operation. Together, they produce about 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 100,000 homes.