Meet Basin Electric's 'Maytag repairman' who kept the lights on

Man standing beside a sign that reads Spirit Mound Station
Michael Hessman, Basin Electric operations maintenance coordinator at Spirit Mound Station near Vermillion, South Dakota.

For 11 years now, Michael Hessman has proudly worn the label, “Maytag repairman,” as the only employee at Basin Electric’s Spirit Mound Station, located near Vermillion, South Dakota.

Spirit Mound is a peaking power plant, meaning it runs about a dozen times a year, usually during periods of extreme hot or cold weather. It uses fuel oil, and while there is capacity on site to hold up to 8 million gallons of the fuel, Spirit Mound rarely stores more than 1 million gallons because it takes quite a few run hours to use that fuel up.

Early in February, Hessman put in an order for more fuel oil, something he only had done only twice before: in 2008 and 2019. “We were getting day-ahead calls, which never happens,” he says, meaning he was getting notice from Basin Electric marketing that he would likely need to be ready to run the next day.

“I’m usually the last guy they call, or the most expensive guy they call.”

The oil arrives on the plant site via the NuStar Energy Pipeline, a multi-use pipeline near the plant. Sara Erhardt, Basin Electric buyer, says a supplier near Sprit Mound has access to the pipeline, but “We’re at the mercy of the correct product flowing through that pipeline when we need it, and whether that product has already been allocated to somebody else,” Erhardt says. Since another product was already in the pipeline, the Feb. 9 order wasn’t available to arrive until Feb. 17.

Learning of the pipeline delay, Hessman realized additional oil would be needed prior to the pipeline delivery. “Well, the cold snap was coming. So on Feb. 13, that Saturday, we had conference calls to talk through, how can we get fuel to these units without shutting down?” Hessman says.

man standing in front of large tanks
Hessman with some of Spirit Mound Station's fuel oil storage tanks. The facility is able to store up to 8 million gallons of fuel on site, though it rarely keeps more than 1 million gallons there.

Hessman slept at the plant overnight and called in help from Deer Creek Station, Basin Electric’s nearest power plant located in Brookings County, South Dakota, to help with offloading the fuel. “We did 10 truckloads on Valentine’s Day. We had run out of fuel on Saturday, so we went into an outage. We were in contact with marketing and ran through our plan. Each day for the next three days, we received the fuel, burned it, and then put the plant in outage until the next morning when we got more fuel. It was 12-hour shifts,” Hessman says.

Read more about that week, and how Basin Electric's other facilities both fared that week and prepared for it, in the spring issue of Basin Today: How Basin Electric's power plant professionals prepared and performed during the February energy emergency.

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