After a few years of holding steady amid a nationwide economic downturn, Sleepy Eye is making progress.

After a few years of holding steady amid a nationwide economic downturn, Sleepy Eye is making progress.

That means another busy year for Sleepy Eye Public Utilities and Sleepy Eye Public Works Director Bob Elston.

Last year was a big construction season, including a $4.5 million street and utility project on the east end for the Snow project. Along with serving as the public works director and answering to the city council, Elston manages the municipal electric and water utilities and answers to the five-person public utilities commission. The utility employs 11 people; city public works six.

Elston also recently completed six years as board president of the Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which supplies the utility’s wholesale power, along with the Western Area Power Administration. This past April marked his 10th year in Sleepy Eye.

“We have a good commission and a good council,” he said. “They work together well.”

His utility commission includes people with business and electrical backgrounds: Paul Thiesen, Wade Schlie, Daniel Murphy, Steve Haala and Chairman Bob Weiss, who has served on the commission for over 20 years. Weiss knows the utility business, having managed the local phone company (which is located across from the utility office) for many years.

Keeping up to date

Sleepy Eye Public Utilities has quietly provided utility services to its community since 1898. The city of Sleepy Eye has a population of 3,599 and the utility serves 1,894 customers. The utility has done a good job preserving various historical artifacts in its offices, but it has also marched steadily into the modern world.

A new $4.7 million water treatment plant was built in 2010. The utility bonded for about half that amount, received about $950,000 in grants and paid for the rest from reserves.

The power plant, located at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 14 and Minn. Hwy. 4, was at one time a steam plant. Garage and office space is also located at this site. The three coal- and natural gas-fired boilers and steam turbines are gone. The utility also operated a district steam heating system for many years, but it was closed down a little more than a decade ago.

The power plant is kept in excellent repair, however, and now houses six Caterpillar electric generator sets with a generating capacity of 12.4 megawatts (MW). The city peak is approximately 13.5 MW, so on most days the utility can carry the city electric load. Today the plant operates on a standby basis.

The two newest engines were installed in 2008 and should be compliant with federal emissions regulations. The other four generators are not expected to be compliant. The utility has no plans to invest in upgraded emissions controls for the four older engines, but will maintain them for limited use, particularly in emergency situations.

The generators are called into service from time to time. An April 15 outage covered a large area, including Sleepy Eye and New Ulm. Sleepy Eye began generating power and began supplying power to local customers within 30 minutes. Once power started flowing over the transmission line serving the Sleepy Eye substation, the local generators were shut down.

Local customers depend on a steady flow of reasonably-priced power, some more than others. The utility’s largest customers are located on the west side of the city.

Bic Advertising Promotional Products is the utility’s largest customer in terms of kilowatt-hour sales. Del Monte is the utility’s largest electric demand customer, with that peak coming during the pea and corn packing season. Del Monte has its own water wells.

Over the years, a number of commercial customers have moved to the east side of the city. The downtown retail properties have been hard-pressed but some businesses have moved back downtown and other potential businesses have expressed interest in various properties.

Building permits issued annually are in the single digits generally, including one in 2010 and zero in 2011. Population increased 2.4 percent since 2000.

After holding off because of the recession, the utility increased rates last March. After zeroing out the power cost adjustment, the hike came to around 11 percent for most electric customers. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody, since the commission regularly held public discussions about the need for an increase, and the Herald-Dispatch regularly reported on those discussions.

Despite running lean for a number of years, the utility did not deplete its reserves.

Among the utility’s upcoming challenges will be replacing a number of dedicated, long-time employees.