Yooper man buying power plant

Charles Detiege never thought he would be buying a power plant but when his co-workers were being laid off, he felt compelled to do something to keep the facility going.
AP Wire
Jun 17, 2014

 

"The whole reason I did this was for the jobs," Charles Detiege, 37, of Ford River told the Daily Press of Escanaba.

Detiege, the Escanaba power plant's environmental health and safety coordinator, has been employed at the power plant since 2010.

When he started working there, the facility and 17 acres of land were up for sale. After a couple of failed purchases, some of the workers were let go when the plant was idled in January 2012. Detiege decided to do something to keep the jobs here.

"What really kicked it off was the guys getting laid off," said Detiege, recalling how he started looking into buying the plant, asking the workers questions, and reviewing the business numbers.

He also got in contact with some potential partners including an operating engineer, a business manager, and potential yard and plant superintendents.

In early 2012, Detiege formed the company Escanaba Green Energy to purchase the coal-fueled plant from the city and convert it to burn biomass at a total cost of $36.5 million.

"I got serious," he said. "What was in my mind was: 'Why wouldn't I do this?' It's a great opportunity for a smaller company."

Besides keeping the local jobs here, Detiege said the plant purchase would be an investment for him and his family. He also views the biomass business as an investment in the community.

"I believe it's important to the community," he said. The plant is expected to generate about $5 million a year into the region's economy including 75 to 100 spin-off jobs.

The multi-million dollar decision to buy the plant wasn't made lightly, Detiege recalled, explaining that he and his wife are using their home to help secure the loan.

Support from family, friends, co-workers and members of the community has kept them focused on their goal, added Detiege who is very familiar with the plant, having worked there for four years.

"I know the quirks and the little things that need to be fixed," he said. "The plant needs some TLC."

Detiege has been working on the plant purchase for more than two years, facing several obstacles along the way including investors backing out.

"It's been a roller coaster — a lot of ups and downs," he commented.

Much of the delays are due to the number of people involved across the U.S. and in Europe, he noted. Every time a decision is made or a change in a document occurs, everyone has to be notified for approval, he said, adding it takes time to make a $36.5 million deal work.

"I look forward to the day to having a ground-breaking ceremony," he said.

Once the sale is finalized, work will begin on building the fuel yard. There will be a truck dump, a chipper, and a conveyor system to pile the chips up to 70 feet high, he said.

The two boiler units should be available to produce energy on the regional power grid for about eight months before they are converted to burn biomass. The total biomass conversion is expected to last about 14 months, said Detiege.

"By converting to biomass, we'll cut production costs by 30 percent because biomass fuel is so much cheaper than coal," he explained.

The plant's current 16 employees have agreed to stay on at the biomass facility where they will continue to be represented by their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"The workers here have done a phenomenal job here. They have an attachment to the plant and want to stay," Detiege said.

Detiege is president of the company and his wife, Cheryl, is vice president. They are both long-time residents of Escanaba.

Detiege graduated from Escanaba High School and earned a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from Michigan Technological University in Houghton. Prior to working at the power plant, he worked as an environmental and safety manager for Besse Forest Products.

The couple also worked downstate. Cheryl is a substitute bus driver for Escanaba schools. The Detieges have a daughter, Allison.

"She's probably my biggest cheerleader," said Detiege. "She loves being part of this power plant."

Allison has already played an important role in the business because she is the one who named the company "Escanaba Green Energy," he said.

 

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