Local view: It’s time to abandon old coal plants and invest in cleaner energy sourcesMinnesota Power has been ordered by state regulators to study its options in diversifying the types of energy used to power Northeastern Minnesota. It is deciding between investing millions to extend the lives of old coal plants or to replace those plants with other sources of energy.
By: Drew Bennett, for the News Tribune
Minnesota Power has been ordered by state regulators to study its options in diversifying the types of energy used to power Northeastern Minnesota. It is deciding between investing millions to extend the lives of old coal plants or to replace those plants with other sources of energy.
As a conservationist, I care about a healthy environment where fish populations are stable, and water is clear and clean. I care about wildlife and the stable forests that support it. I selfishly want these things around me and those whom I love. For these reasons, I want Minnesota to transition away from old coal plants and avoid costly investments that would allow them to continue harming our open spaces for decades or more.
When we hear about coal generation and how it affects our environment, we usually hear “climate change” and “air pollution.” These are very real and dangerous impacts that will continue to damage Minnesota’s ecosystems and Minnesotans’ health. I care deeply about stopping them. But there are other ways, local ways, coal plants impact the great outdoors, and we all should know about them.
Water consumption: To provide our electricity, a typical 500-megawatt coal plant consumes 2.2 billion gallons of water each year, which is the same as a city of 250,000 residents. (Minnesota Power’s Boswell plant in Cohasset is twice this size. The Taconite Harbor plant in Schroeder is half this size.) This water is pulled from local sources, heated to make steam to create electricity and then released back to local lakes and streams. Eggs, larvae and even adult fish are sucked into the water intake pipes at the beginning of the process. When the water is discharged back into the wild, it is 20 to 25 degrees warmer; this decreases fish fertility and increases fish heart rates, and it affects the growth of smaller plant life critical to the health of our lakes and streams.
Solid waste: Coal turns into electricity, air emission and solid waste. We’ve heard about carbon dioxide and mercury particles spewing from smokestacks, but we don’t often hear about the solid waste — coal ash and scrubber sludge — often stored in open-air “surface ponds” nearby. This toxic waste can seep into our water supply. Other ponds actually have broken and spilled into the surrounding environment. In 2008, a Tennessee surface pond broke, spilling more than 1 billion gallons of waste that poisoned nearby lakes and rivers and buried 12 homes. For reference, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska was 11 million gallons.
Climate change, air pollution, high water consumption, fishery degradation and water contamination are some of the impacts and risks associated with coal plants operating right now in northern Minnesota. These impacts are costly — but I won’t pay for them on my utility bill; it will be through higher taxes for environmental cleanup, higher health premiums, and lost opportunities to enjoy our wild outdoors.
When I look at other solutions to our energy needs — like energy efficiency, wind and solar — I can’t help but think of all the risks they don’t impose. These resources do not create airborne or solid-waste products. Their fuel is free, not mined in someone else’s wilderness.
When 95 percent of Northeastern Minnesota still is powered by old coal plants, I can’t help but think of all the damage those power plants can do if we allow utilities to invest millions of dollars in life-extending retrofits.
To Minnesota Power: do not extend the lives of these old coal plants with expensive retrofits; instead, invest in energy that reduces the risk to our health, rivers, lakes and wildlife.
Drew Bennett is on the energy program staff of the Izaak Walton League of America, which has 18 chapters throughout Minnesota, including the McCabe chapter in Duluth.