A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder. The Energy Center, owned and operated by Minnesota Power, is the home of three 75 megawatt coal fired turbines that provide electricity to a number of major industrial plants and over a hundred thousand residential customers in northeastern Minnesota. In a highly simplified nutshell, they bring in low sulfur coal from Wyoming by ship, burn it to produce steam and use the steam to turn the giant electrical turbines. Forty-five people are directly employed at the plant, along with a pretty constant flow of contractors, especially in recent years.
I toured the plant once before, I think it was in the early ‘70s. That was a personal tour for me and my dad conducted by Floyd Maxfield, a good family friend who was chief electrician there at the time. The basic structure of the plant is the same now as it was then. It was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the basic technology is still in place.
Two parts of the plant are quite different now. The first is a new building, constructed circa 2007, that contains modern pollution control equipment. Because it was built in the ‘50s, the Tac Harbor facility is exempt from much of the Clean Air Act. When the act was passed under President Nixon, the utilities argued that the old plants would soon be obsolete, so it was foolish to require them to upgrade their pollution equipment. It turned out, of course, that the old electrical plants are still needed and the majority are still up and running. Minnesota Power, being a good corporate citizen, and seeing that the old plants would eventually be required to meet modern pollution standards, decided to invest many millions of dollars in up-to-date pollution controls, voluntarily. The power plant now operates well below its allowed pollution levels, but even more pollution controls will be installed this year to bring the pollution levels even lower. All of the recent equipment has been focused on air pollution. Their water and solid pollutants have been treated under a zero release policy for quite a while.
The other big change at the plant is the control room. Back in the '70s, it was a packed with gauges and dials. I vividly remember that when we entered the control room, Orton Tofte, Senior, was on duty, reading the Duluth newspaper while keeping one eye on the gauges. Now, the control room is almost all flat screens with clear, colorful displays. Operations superintendent, Dave Dilley, explained that the control room operator can watch and manage every little part of the complex with just the click of a mouse.
I’d like to express my thanks to Dave Dilley for the fascinating tour, plant manager Dave Rannetsberger for arranging it, and Minnesota Power for being proactive and diligent in their pollution policies. Of course, large power plants like this are big producers of carbon dioxide, which is clearly contributing to climate change, but that is a larger issue that the country and world are just starting to struggle with. Minnesota Power is aware of this problem and is working toward making more of their electricity from renewable, low pollution sources like wind and hydro.
I noticed on Boreal Access the other day the Darrel Smith is retiring from ambulance duty. Darrel doesn’t live in the West End, but he has sure been here for us over the years. More than once, I’ve been happy to see his friendly, calm and competent face in the middle of a medical emergency. Darrel is one of those quiet heros among us that we rely on but can never thank enough. In recent years, little old Cook County has had more than its share of big emergencies, so congratulations and thank you to Darrel and all the emergency responders who have helped us through. Your efforts are truly appreciated.