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Judge: Superior natural gas plant not needed

Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative have proposed a $700 million natural gas power plant, Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which would be located near the oil refinery in Superior and provide up to 550 megawatts of power. (Courtesy Minnesota Power)

An administrative law judge on Monday recommended that plans for a proposed natural gas power plant in Superior come to an end.

Judge Jeanne M. Cochran said Minnesota Power’s proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center is not needed or in the public interest, and should be rejected by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

To move the project forward, the PUC would first need to approve two assignment of rights agreements — a construction agent and an operating agent — and a capacity dedication agreement, but Cochran urged the PUC to deny those in her non-binding recommendation.

“Minnesota Power has failed to establish that approval of these affiliated interest agreements is consistent with the public interest because it has failed to demonstrate that the underlying 250 (megawatt) NTEC purchase is needed and reasonable,” Cochran wrote.

Minnesota Power would build the plant with Dairyland Power Cooperative on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy’s Superior Terminal and the Nemadji River.

The plant is slated to provide a 535 megawatt output.

Minnesota Power has marketed the project as a support system for its expanding solar and wind energy production. The plant would “support renewables when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining,” according to a company fact sheet.

In an emailed statement Monday, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the construction of the plant would help the company reach its renewable energy goals.

“With the addition of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, we are confident we will reach 44 percent renewable energy by 2025,” Rutledge wrote, adding that the company is currently at 30 percent renewable energy.

But environmental groups are skeptical. They maintain that Minnesota Power should use more renewable sources instead of, not in addition to, natural gas — a nonrenewable source that emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.

“It doesn’t make sense to lock in a decision to burn fossil fuels for decades when clean, renewable energy gets cheaper every year. We believe the MNPUC should take a hard look at this proposal in light of Judge Cochran’s thoughtful analysis,” Leigh Currie, an energy program director and senior staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said in a statement Monday.

Officials from Minnesota Power and its parent company Allete have defended their plans in the past, arguing that while burning natural gas emits carbon dioxide, it emits less than coal-burning plants.

If approved, the $700 million plant would be the largest private investment for Superior and Douglas County. It has the support of Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who told the the News Tribune by phone Monday that the city would “keep fighting for a good project.”

“This would be good economically for Superior,” Paine said. “Both for our economy and for our actual municipal budget.”

Paine said that the plant would create jobs, improve the tax base and generate nearly $1 million in stormwater fees annually.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Commerce recommended that the PUC approve the plant, writing that the “agreements are reasonable and in the public interest.”

In March, 11 Northland mining, paper and energy companies, which consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power’s electricity, came out against the proposed plant. They want to meet future power needs through demand response. Minnesota Power can pull a few levers and better distribute what's already available, they say, even if it means an occasional planned outage to send power elsewhere. That, however, wouldn’t work, the company said at the time.  

The PUC is expected to hold hearings and deliberations on the Nemadji Trail Energy Center this fall.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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