RMU Generation Plant works to cut power costs in the summers

From left to right: The Rochelle Municipal Utilities Generation Plant is staffed by Operators John Zhe, Nick Anatra, Dustin "Bubba" Shafer, Shane Waters and Jonny Plaza. The plant runs at peak power use times in the summer to save the city money, along with during emergency situations and on extremely cold days in the winter.

‘It’s becoming more and more beneficial to the utility’

ROCHELLE — Last summer, operators at the Rochelle Municipal Utilities Generation Plant worked 24/7 for 15 straight days to power the downtown area due to a transformer issue. 

That’s just one ability that the facility at 127 N. 9th St. has. Most of the time, it’s used as a peak power shaving plant on hot days during the summertime when residents and businesses are running their air conditioners and putting stress on the power grid. 

“What we do is generate power here to relieve some of that stress on the grid,” RMU Superintendent of Electric Operations Blake Toliver said. “In turn, that saves the city money because we have to pay for the capacity to get the power here. What we do is generate power internally to lower the capacity that we're buying off the grid, which saves our customers money.”

Toliver said that on average, the plant saves the city between $2 million and $2.5 million a year in capacity costs. After operational costs, the net savings has been near $1 million.

On June 24, operators at the plant said they ran every day but two in the past two weeks. They've generated more so far this year than they have in the past. Usually June is "kind of slow" for generation needs and in July and August it's more common. Working 12-13-hours on generation days isn't uncommon.

A staff of five operators typically runs the generation plant. Temperatures inside the plant while it’s running can reach up to 130 degrees, Toliver said. Operators at the plant include John Zhe, Nick Anatra, Dustin "Bubba" Shafer, Shane Waters and Jonny Plaza. 

“This is a group of guys that live for this,” Toliver said. “You come in here and it's 130 degrees in the plant and there's constantly someone walking around the floor and around the engines and checking out stuff. When you're working in this plant, it kind of becomes part of you because that engine is your responsibility to keep moving to produce power.” 

The plant also can run in the winter on extremely cold days when businesses and homes use large amounts of power running heating units. Typically the winter is more of a maintenance season at the plant where any issues that arose during the summer are worked on. A majority of the maintenance work is done by RMU operators unless the job is too large and needs to be contracted out. 

Toliver said when temperatures are hot for long periods of time, the RMU electric department tends to see more work because stress put on transformers makes them more likely to overheat and fail. But, so far this year the department has been “particularly lucky” and hasn’t seen a lot of transformer failures. Recent high winds, however, have caused problems. 

“We have had a lot of wind this year,” Toliver said. “And it's not even July yet. The wind has caused us some issues with trees and things like that. We do our best to get everybody back up as quickly as possible and make sure to keep people's homes comfortable on these hot days."

The dual-fueled plant runs on diesel fuel and natural gas. Fuel prices being high recently have made a difference and will impact RMU’s bottom line this year, but Toliver said it’s still worth the savings in power costs that the plant brings on peak days. 

In Toliver’s nine years at RMU, he’s seen the plant’s run days trend upward. When he first started, there were usually 20-22 run days a year with 25 being a high year. Last year the generation plant worked “well over” 30 days, he said. 

“Temperatures are climbing and the load of the grid is climbing,” Toliver said. “In recent years a lot of large scale coal and fossil fuel plants have been shutting down. That's also affecting this operation. As those shut down, the stresses on the grid get higher and the call to run for us is greater.”

Areas in Central Illinois are currently looking at possible brownouts this year due to shortfalls in power. Rochelle uses a different regional transmission operator for the power it purchases and is “sitting OK as far as generation goes,” Toliver said. But that could become an issue in future years when older power plants that provide energy to the grid are retired.

A plan was put together years ago for how RMU would power the city if it were to ever lose its energy ties due to constraints on the grid, Toliver said. Like how it was able to power the downtown last summer, the RMU generation plant has the ability to back up a significant residential portion of the city if necessary in an extreme scenario.

“We could also do some work in the industrial area,” Toliver said. “We don't have enough generation capacity for the whole town. Most likely we'd run during the day for the industrial areas and then switch at night and shut the industrial areas down and run all the residential areas so people could sleep in cool hours.”

RMU is looking into doing a generation study to see if it would be worth getting more modern generation at the plant. The newest engine in it was built in the 1960s. 

“We're looking at potential for gas-fired turbines or something along those lines,” Toliver said. “This generation plant is becoming more and more beneficial to the utility."