Kevin Simpson’s hands jumped from one control to the next as the final scraps of coal burned at the Board of Light & Power’s J.B. Sims Generating Station on Thursday afternoon.
Simpson and Brad Bakale were on duty in the control room Thursday, joined by a crowd of people gathered to witness the final moments of power generation in the 37-year-old plant.
The plant’s official time of closure was 2:27 p.m.
“It’s bittersweet,” Simpson said. “I have mixed feelings. I’ve been here almost seven years, and up in the control room almost four years.”
The process of shutting down the plant for the final time wasn’t a complicated one, but Simpson and Bakale had their hands full for several minutes as they monitored steam pressure and several other gauges.
“You can’t just be focused on one thing. You have to be watching everything,” Bakale said.
“We always hope for the best, a smooth shutdown,” Simpson added. “Sometimes you get lucky.”
Thursday’s shutdown marked the end of an era for the coal-burning plant on Harbor Island. The plant has generated power for the Tri-Cities for nearly four decades. However, it has surpassed its life expectancy by several years, and would have required extensive updates and upgrades to continue operation.
BLP General Manager Dave Walters said it simply didn’t make sense from a financial standpoint to revamp the plant.
“Our cost per megawatt to generate right now is about $44, $43 – and that’s just for the fuel,” he said. “The price right now on the market is $19 per megawatt. We’re making money when we shut this plant down. The problem is, we had to get rid of all the coal out there first.”
Burning the remaining coal proved to be an issue, for several reasons. The coal being burned is literally the bottom of the pile, so it contains debris that sometimes gets into the equipment and causes failures.
The work is being done with a significantly smaller staff over the past 24 months.
“Two years ago, we were at 72 employees,” Walters said. “Now we’re at 58. Those 14 people have been retired or moving over to other jobs in the utility. Guys who are still here have been working double shifts, triple shifts, burning the coal.
“And we’re at the bottom of the pile,” he continued. “Last night, we had some junk come in, get into our equipment and shut it down. Over the last 3-4 months, we’ve had a very challenging environment. But I’d much rather be where we’re at today than where we were 15 months ago. The plant is 37 years old. It’s not new, so things go wrong, and whenever things go wrong, we’re in a situation where we can’t put a bunch more money into it, so we try to make it work.”
Simpson agreed that the past year has been a challenge.
“It’s outdated, stuff is failing,” he said. “This plant had a 35-year plan and we got 37 years out of it. It’s at the end of its useful life.”
Still, shutting things down for the last time Thursday elicited a range of emotions.
“We’ve got employees who have got 30 years here,” Simpson said. “I haven’t been here that long, but my whole life I’ve lived in Grand Haven, and that whole time this plant has been here. It’s a landmark.”
Walters noted that when the plant shuts down, the auxiliary boiler on site on Harbor Island will continue to run the city’s downtown snowmelt system for the remainder of the winter.
Starting Friday, workers will begin preparing the Sims plant for demolition, which is slated to begin in earnest June 1 and continue for approximately a year. The demolition will include two implosions, Walters explained, to take down the smoke stack and the boiler facility.
Grand Haven city staff have been working since last spring and summer to deal with high levels of water causing flooding, erosion and more, and they are not alone.
The effects of last year’s high water around the Great Lakes were noticed statewide and nationally. On Monday, representatives from many different agencies and organizations met in Lansing to discuss the impacts the water has had and hear predictions for this coming year during the High Water Coordinating Summit.
Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis attended the meeting as a representative of the Michigan Municipal League.
“The event was put on by the (state) Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy,” he said. “It was very inspiring to see a state agency grab the reins.”
Other organizations represented at the summit included the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Michigan Township Association, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In a presentation given by a NOAA representative, participants of the Lansing Community College-based event heard that, overall, the past 10 years have been far more wet across the Great Lakes states than normal.
“As a whole, the state of Michigan is in the middle of the wettest one-year period, three-year period and five-year period since records began over 120 years ago,” the presentation stated. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts record or near record levels for spring and summer 2020 on all the Great Lakes.”
Last summer, record high levels that had previously been set in the 1980s were broken on lakes Superior, Erie, Ontario and St. Clair. This January, a new monthly high record was reached for lakes Superior and Michigan-Huron, according to the Corps of Engineers’ Detroit chief of the watershed hydrology branch, Keith Kompoltowicz.
“Water levels on all the Great Lakes started higher in 2020 than in 2019,” Kompoltowicz said in his presentation. “The impacts of high water will be felt well into 2020. This will be a long duration event.”
McGinnis said the high water levels, and the damages that follow, are similar economically to a tornado or fire. The difference, he noted, is repairs can then be made after other natural disasters, whereas repairs for water damage are being done in the lull between high levels.
“This isn’t an onset emergency,” he said. “It’s slow moving. We know it’s coming.”
The new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada (USMCA) may benefit some local manufacturers, but the unknowns at this time outweigh the knowns.
In other words, it may be too early to tell.
Dave Jerovsek, president of diversified markets for Grand Haven-based GHSP, said the jury is still out.
“At this point we don’t know,” he said. “Some of it, from a government perspective, we’re waiting to see how those details play out. We suspect there is going to be some positive impact, but we’re waiting for the regulations to roll out to see what the impact is.”
The majority of parts manufactured in Mexico are regionally based, Jerovsek said, and locations in the United States support the Detroit area and the eastern side of the country, “where most of the automotive action is.”
From a regional perspective, he doesn’t expect much impact.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “We’re still waiting (on the details).”
Steve Moreland, president and CEO of Automatic Spring Products Corp., said he expects favorable results from the trade agreement.
“It’s a very complex piece of legislation,” he said. “There is a huge directional change from the perspective of vehicles built in North America.”
Among its key points, the new agreement will require 75 percent of automotive parts come from North America by 2023. Today, only 62.5 percent are manufactured in North America, according to Moreland.
“This means they’ll source more product here and less out of Asia or Europe,” he said. “Any of us who have businesses built on supplying the automotive industry are likely to see long-term gains as this agreement will encourage car manufacturers to buy.”
Employment numbers could also see a boost, according to Moreland.
“It will be slow – about a 12.5 percent change over a three-year period,” he said. “It will start to drive behaviors that will affect our company and other companies like ours. We see it as an overall win. It’s a win for America and a win for manufacturing.”
Exact benefits are difficult to estimate, though.
“It’s tough to predict, but it will be a meaningful percentage,” Moreland said. “If they have to increase their supply by 12.5 percent in the big picture, I think that would have a similar impact on our market. If there’s a 10 to 15 percent (gain) over the next several years, I would see a similar range.”
He expects 10-20 new jobs could be added at his company over the next three years.
“It should mean more business and more employees and a brighter future,” Moreland said. “I don’t see any negatives.”
Lee Brace, president of Jost International, said his company probably won’t be affected by the new trade agreement.
“We make parts for semi-trailers and they’re pretty much made in the U.S.,” he said. “Probably 95 or 99 percent of our parts are made in the U.S.”
Jim Wujkowski, general manager of NPR America in Grand Haven, which makes valve seat inserts, said his company primarily shops into the United States and Europe.
“Our supply base is right here in the U.S.,” Wujkowski said. “I feel kind of lucky, I guess. We’re positioned pretty well.”
Dr. Paul Isley, associate dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, said the USMCA could bring both positive and negative effects to West Michigan.
“There are things that are good and things that are bad for West Michigan,” he said. “But the things that are bad are less bad than the uncertainty that existed without it. I think that’s going to be a net positive.”
Isley predicts the agreement will allow the automotive industry to start looking at supply chains across North America.
“They’ve been unwilling to invest in their supply chain because they’ve been unsure what it looked like,” he said. “Now they know – build a factory here or don’t build a factory.”