ENVIRONMENT: Power plant property attracting developers

ADVANCE – Living across from Advance Power Plant has been part of Pete and Pat Palajac’s identity. They own the small general store in Advance that once served as a lunch stop for many of the plant’s employees.

The retired coal plant is located about four miles outside of Boyne City in a little inhabited area called Advance. The store and plant are the only real buildings in the little town other than homes and a small alternative school.

When operating, the plant burned 49,000 tons of coal a day–or five shiploads. The ships would travel to the plant via Lake Michigan. As tourists watched with fascination, the ships would inch their way through the narrow channel in Charlevoix to slip into Lake Charlevoix. Before the plant shut down in January 1997, the Palajacs spent many nights watching the 600-foot coal vessels ease into the plant’s port.

“It was quite nice having the boats come in,” Pat says. “When we had company, we would all go and watch them come in.”

Today, the Palajacs watch something else. They see construction trailers moving onto the property. They hear customers asking about the future of the lakeside land and speculating about what will become of the 24-acre area, which sports 1,900 feet of frontage on Lake Charlevoix.

“I know there’s a line of developers waiting to get in there,” Pete says. “There aren’t many pieces of property in this area that give you access to the whole world through the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

The property is owned by Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, a not-for-profit, member-owned generation and transmission electric cooperative based in Cadillac. Wolverine supplies wholesale electricity to five member cooperatives, serving more than 600,0000 residents throughout rural portions of 35 Michigan counties.

Like Big Rock Point, a former nuclear power plant near Charlevoix, Advance Power Plant was shut down amid expectations of statewide electric deregulation. Increased competition made it difficult for smaller, aging plants to be economically competitive.

Advance Power Plant was capable of producing between 40 and 45 megawatts of electricity, enough power to light nearly 20,000 homes, says Craig Borr, vice president of communications and member relations. The plant was staffed with about 30 employees. Technology in newer plants had decreased the number of employees necessary for operation, therefore, reducing expenses.

“Largely, it was a plant that had seen its best days,” Borr says.

Dismantlement of the 47-year-old plant is being done in three stages: removing 80,000 tons of coal; removing 28,000 tons of fly ash (a byproduct of burning coal) and moving an electrical substation to an easement about 1.5 miles south; and dismantling the structure.

In 1998, the coal was trucked from the plant to Petoskey. It was loaded into train cars and transported to an affiliate of Detroit Edison to be burned at a power plant in Monroe. The coal was valued at between $2 and $3 million.

The Palajacs watched the black mountainous pile of coal shrink as truck after truck hauled it to Petoskey.

In 1999, phase two began when fly ash was trucked to a Charlevoix cement company to be used as a hardener, Borr says. The removal of the substation also began. The substation must be moved because it is still needed to transmit electricity through the area. However, it will now sit on company-owned land away from the lake.

Once the substation is completely moved, only the structure will remain, and the third phase–tearing down the buildings–will begin. Contracted employees are currently removing asbestos from inside the plant.

The cooperative hopes to donate much of the plant to a developing country. It has no plans to reuse any of the equipment stateside. The actual dismantlement of the buildings is expected to cost about $1 million, not including costs incurred to date.

“We’re targeting to have much of our work done by the end of the year so we can be serious about entertaining (property) buyers by the beginning of next year,” Borr says. “Our intent is to sell the property–no doubt about that. We have frankly been inundated by tire kickers who want to see the property.”

The property has a seawall and fly ash ponds, which could be used as a marina.

Pete hopes that whatever happens across the street will be attractive and bring his store business. His general store has been in existence since 1865, much longer than the power plant.

“It would be a big shot in the arm for us if they developed the property into residential housing,” Pete says. BN