Great River’s Energy facility taking shape

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 2, 2000

SARGEANT – It looks like something out of a Stars Wars movie.

Thursday, November 02, 2000

SARGEANT – It looks like something out of a Stars Wars movie.

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A space station in the middle of nowhere.

Giant poles point skyward, steel girders are stacked on the ground, huge smokestacks grow taller every day, rolls of cable and more attract double-takes from passersby.

But it’s not part of a movie set; it’s Great River Energy’s $160 million 434-megawatt gas-fired generating facility in Pleasant Valley Township.

Farmers used to grow corn and soybeans here. Now, Great River Energy is planning to grow electricity.

"I’ve been a part of other power plant projects," said Timothy P. Steinbeck. "This one is a significant challenge in my career. It’s one of those milestones to remember, because we’re starting from ground up. It’s exciting to start running on something like this and just doing it."

Steinbeck is project manager for generation engineering for GRE.

"I’ve been here basically from the start, from ground-breaking May 2 and through the early site preparation work that took, maybe, five to six weeks of grading," Steinbeck said.

"The contractors started mobilizing June 20 and 21, both the civil engineering and mechanical contractors," he said.

"The giant turbines were on-site for three months while their foundations were poured," he said.

"Now, you can see how far along we are," he said, pointing out a trailer-office window.

Even occasional rain showers and cloudy skies couldn’t diminish the enormity of the GRE project Wednesday afternoon.

Once upon a time, some one suggested the least-populated townships in Mower County should be zoned for industrial agriculture and become the home to giant livestock confinement operations.

Today, the Pleasant Valley Township Board members call the generation facility a "gold mine in taxes." Along with neighboring townships and, in particular, the Hayfield Independent School District and all of Mower County eventually will reap the benefits of real estate property taxes paid by GRE.

Sure, the company received a personal property tax exemption on utility equipment, but the company will pay over $600,000 in taxes annually for its transmission line and a total of $1.1 million in property taxes each year.

Not to be forgotten is the Mower County Board of Commissioners’ ability to negotiate a $2.5 million fee "bonus" to the county’s coffers from GRE, when the project is complete to compensate for any degradation to local roads or for use of county services.

GRE is an Elk River-based generation and transmission cooperative, providing electrical energy and related services to 29 distribution cooperatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Pleasant Valley Township facility will be a peaking power plant , consisting of three, simple-cycle combustion turbines.

The primary fuel for the facility will be natural gas chosen for its low air emissions and ready availability.

Fuel will be delivered to the site via the Northern Natural gas pipeline in southern Minnesota.

A backup fuel oil supply will be on -site in case of interruption in the natural gas supply.

A new 161-kilovolt transmission line will connect the peaking plant with the Austin Utilities’. northeast plant in Austin. In addition, GRE will tap into an existing 345 KV transmission line to further extend and guarantee a reliable energy supply.

The project is intended to improve area transmission reliability and Mower County residents only have to recall the June 1998 windstorm and the infamous Halloween ice storm of 1991 and how electrical power to the area was interrupted to be reminded of how important a reliable system is.

The Pleasant Valley station will also improve the region’s energy supply.

And the good news is that the project is on schedule and should be completed and operational in spring 2001.

Wednesday’s on-site visit examined both the size of the project and progress to date.

Siemens-Westinghoue is the general contractor for the design and manufacture of the facility’s major components. NewMech and Commonwealth Electric top a long list of over 20 different sub-contractors.

Presently, 135-140 workers are on-site, according to Steinbeck, who added the work force should peak at 175 later this month.

The workers come largely from the southern Minnesota area and most of the sub-contractors are Minnesota-based companies.

Siemens-Westinghouse does have a handful of Germany-born engineering supervisors working on the project.

In addition, a specialty crew from Germany is installing ceramic tile for the combustion turbines.

"We’re on track for the planned May 1, 2001, startup of both combustion turbines. The third unit will come later," Steinbeck said.

So aggressive is the project’s schedule that some specialty crafts workers are working 7-days a week at times. A majority of the workers have a five- or six-days a week schedule.

The work day is typically dawn to dusk and with the advent of winter around the corner, the pace is naturally accelerated to get as much exterior work done as possible before winter weather slows productivity, when the critical detail assembly work begins.

Many workers have rented homes and apartments in area communities. The Oasis at Dexter has reaped the largest amount of business.

Among the hundreds of semi-trucks delivering equipment to the site are several who have gotten "lost." The nearby elevator at Sargeant has received more than its share of truck drivers inquiring where the GRE Pleasant Valley Station is located.

Among the significant milestones already achieved is the transmission line that has been completed to interconnect with the generation equipment at the site. Also, the natural gas line work has been completed allowing the generation station to tap into it.

"We’re at least on schedule and in some cases ahead of schedule in some areas of the project," said Steinbeck. "I think it has really been exciting for all of us, who were here from the start to see how much has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time."

"We really have a good work force," he said. "Their diligence and craftsmanship is much appreciated."

Weekly meetings keep all the engineering supervisors on the same page and other daily meetings among foremen and supervisors help avoid any other snags in what Steinbeck repeatedly referred to as a "very fast track" of a schedule.

"The truly significant challenges lie ahead to work through the winter and stay on schedule," he said.

Pleasant Valley Township Board members have visited the site frequently to see it grow before their eyes.

Other curiosity-seekers also stop along the county highway and drive into the site itself to watch from their cars and pickup trucks.

The site is fenced and has a 24/7 security force to keep intruders out, while the Mower County Sheriff’s Department also has stepped up after-hours patrols in the area.

There has not been a single time-loss injury among the work force, which Steinbeck credits to both good supervision and the professionalism of the employees.

A break in Wednesday’s afternoon rain showers allows Steinbeck to step outside and point to the massive project.

A huge fuel oil tank resembles an exposed guided missile silo with an earthen berm being constructed around it. Nearby is one equally-large water tower with another to be constructed later.

The Hayfield Volunteer Fire Department — in whose fire district the facility is located — has been working with GRE personnel on potential fire safety issues.

An administration building in the southwest corner of the 28 acres will become the headquarters building for operation of the peak shavings facility, which will be operated only during peak electricity demand periods.

Smokestacks for the turbine generators rise 26 feet into the sky on their way to 90 foot heights.

The substations steel poles and transmission lines look like a very neat creation from a child’s Erector set.

All this and the feeling that Pleasant Valley Township ain’t seen nothin’ yet as the single largest construction projects in the history of Mower County takes shape in a corn field.