L’Anse Warden Electric


Sep 11, 2009

Guarantied productivity with Komatsu equipment

As part of an effort to improve the environment and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, President Obama has made renewable energy a priority of his administration. This “green revolution” means, in the future, our electricity will come from a variety of power sources beyond the traditional coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear. Wind, solar and biomass will play an increasingly important role in providing the electricity we use to power homes and businesses from coast-to-coast.

In the Village of L’Anse, Mich., on Lake Superior in the western Upper Peninsula (U.P.), the L’Anse Warden Electric Company is one of the early converts to green power. L’Anse Warden Electric converted a former coal-burning plant into one that runs on biomass — a combination of wood chips, paper-mill residue, tire chips, railroad ties, construction/demolition debris and the like.

“Basically we use material that would otherwise go to a landfill, or in the case of some of the wood products, would just stay on the ground in the forest as logging waste,” said Mike Reid, General Manager and COO of L’Anse Warden Electric Company, which runs L’Anse Warden for its parent company, Traxys. “It’s definitely good for the environment in that it extends the life of landfills and burns a lot cleaner than coal.”

How much cleaner? According to Reid, the plant, which came on line in November 2008, reduces particulate emissions by 40 tons per year and fine particulates by 46 tons per year. He says nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides are reduced by 1,700 tons per year, which is more than a 50-percent reduction compared to coal.

Improving the local economy

Converting the former coal-fired plant to biomass was no small feat and not inexpensive. Traxys bought the L’Anse plant in July 2007, and even with its fast-track schedule, it took almost a year and a half until it was built, permitted and operational.

“The biggest items were converting the boiler to burn wood chips and other biomass material and building a fuel yard to store the material,” said Reid. “In total, it’s about a $25 million to $30 million investment to convert a plant like this.”

For L’Anse, Mich., an additional significant benefit of the plant is the jobs it brought to an economically distressed state and region. The previous plant, which opened in 1959, had basically been shut down since 1993. The process of converting it into a biomass facility employed up to 100 construction workers at the peak. Now that it’s operational, the plant itself employs about 20 people. Even more significant are the 25 or so spin-off jobs, primarily in wood aggregation, and the extra source of revenue for area loggers, sawmills and paper plants.

“We definitely believe we’ve had a very positive economic impact on the village and the region,” asserted Reid. “We do our best to contribute to the community in other ways as well. As a result, we’ve been nominated for a Michigan Small Business Innovation Award and we’re very proud of that.”

Needed: 400 tons of fuel daily

The biggest challenge of biomass energy production compared to coal, according to Reid, is coming up with the 400 tons per day of fuel needed to power the plant.

“We hired Norman Pestka Construction (Ontonagon, Mich.) to handle the acquisition and delivery of our fuel needs. As what we call our fuel aggregator, it’s their responsibility to source and deliver that 400 tons per day of usable material that’s been chipped, cleaned and sorted and is ready to burn.”

Norman Pestka Construction has 18 people working full time to aggregate material for L’Anse Warden. “It is a challenge, but we’ve learned as we’ve gone along,” said Norm Pestka. “This was all new to us. In the beginning, we didn’t know exactly how we were going to do it, but I’ve got about 45 years of putting things together for customers in this area and I was confident in our crew’s ability to meet the fuel needs of the plant. Today, it’s all working out.”

For economic purposes, Pestka tries to aggregate within a 100-mile radius of L’Anse. In addition, the company spent $1.5 million to build a barge-loading facility on Lake Superior within a few hundred yards of the plant to allow it to import fuel such as railroad ties.

Down the road, L’Anse Warden and Traxys are also looking at establishing a “closed-loop” biomass production process.

“Essentially that means we’ll grow our own wood,” explained Reid. “They will be hybrid trees that grow very fast and deliver high BTU. It’s a closed-loop system because we grow it ourselves, harvest it ourselves, burn it for our own use, and then we’ll take the ash and use it as fertilizer to grow more trees. Closed-loop won’t replace our other fuel sources — it will primarily be a backup and supplemental source as needed.”

Productive, reliable equipment

To keep the fuel supply moving at the plant, L’Anse Warden and Norman Pestka Construction turned to Komatsu wheel loaders from Roland Machinery. L’Anse Warden uses a Komatsu WA380-6 to load chips in the fuel yard and uses a WA250-5 in the plant for cleanup, to load rubber into bins and to serve as a backup for use at the fuel yard. The two other Komatsu loaders (WA250-5 and WA320-5) are used by Norm Pestka’s crews in the field, harvesting wood products.

“I’ve known Norm Pestka for 20 years and he has a great reputation,” said Reid. “When we offered him the wood aggregation contract, he made it clear that he wanted and needed Komatsu equipment from Roland because he said that was the only way he could guarantee us the 400 tons of material per day that we require. The key thing for us is machine reliability. We’ve got to have 400 tons each day, day-in and day-out, 365 days a year. There can be no excuses. So we were willing to give Norm what he wanted in order to ensure that.”

“We have a lot of experience with Komatsu equipment and have always found it to be high quality — very productive and very reliable,” said Pat Pestka, Norman’s son and right-hand man. “In our site-development work, we use Komatsu dozers, excavators and wheel loaders and have had great success. In many instances, we’ve had Komatsu machines for years without ever having to put a wrench to them. That tells you they’re well-designed and well-built machines.”

“Equally important to us is the service we get from Roland Machinery and the trust we have in dealing with their people,” said Norm Pestka. “Roland Escanaba Branch Sales Manager Matt Hanson, Territory Manager Perry Hughes, the other salesmen we’ve worked with, and all their parts people and service technicians have proven themselves to us time and again. If we need a part, we get it. If we need a repair, we get it. If we need a loaner machine, we get it. Roland has been a great partner to us through the years and we knew their support would be invaluable for us in taking on this new project as aggregator for L’Anse Warden.”

A green-energy leader

The L’Anse Warden plant can export almost 18 megawatts to the nation’s electrical transmission grid, enough to power about 20,000 homes. It also provides steam power and electricity to a neighboring manufacturing plant in L’Anse. It’s the first of several green power plants Traxys hopes to run in the U.P.

“In addition to the L’Anse Warden plant, we also own a plant in White Pine, Michigan, that we’re planning to convert to a biomass facility,” reported Reid. “We’re also looking at opening a biomass plant in Marquette, and possibly Escanaba. Traxys would like to grow an energy company that will employ about 100 people in plants and another 100 to 200 in aggregation or farming. The goal is to be able to produce in the neighborhood of 100 to 120 megawatts of green energy by the year 2011. One of the reasons for doing that is because Michigan has legislation requiring a certain percentage of electrical capacity be generated by renewable energy in future years.

“We definitely believe renewable energy is the wave of the future and demand for it will only increase as the country goes greener,” he added. “Right now, with the economy down, demand for electricity is also down. But we think that’s a short-term issue. Down the road, we expect demand for all power to grow and for green energy to be the power of choice. Our goal is to be in on the ground floor and be a leader in that green-energy revolution.”