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Coal-fired operations to end at Taconite Harbor Energy Center; plant will be idled in 2016

Minnesota Power's Taconite Harbor Energy Center. (Minnesota Power photo)1 / 2
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As part of the company's shift away from smaller coal-fired plants, Duluth-based Minnesota Power will idle its Taconite Harbor Energy Center beginning in the fall of 2016.

Located in the North Shore town of Schroeder, Taconite Harbor Energy Center currently produces 150 of the company's 1900 megawatts of power.

The move was first announced in a meeting with the plant's 42 employees Thursday and in a news release later in the day. The company will cease coal-fired operations at Taconite Harbor entirely by the end of 2020. In the interim years, it will be restarted only to maintain grid reliability, company officials said.

The move comes as part of the company's "EnergyForward" initiative — a road map for achieving a diversified energy supply of one-third renewable resources, one-third coal and one-third natural gas.

"We're laying out next steps," Vice President of Strategy and Planning Al Rudeck said in an interview with the News Tribune following the announcement. "It's going to mean less coal, more natural gas, solar, wind and water."

Taconite Harbor employees, Rudeck said, will be offered the chance to stay with the company.

"Now that the decision has been made we want to make sure we give them enough time," he said. "These are talented and respected and committed employees at Taconite Harbor and we're going to work with them."

Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson weighed in on the human toll of the announcement, lamenting potential transfers that will affect North Shore communities. He said he knows a number of the people who work at the plant and called their jobs well-paying.

"I can picture the faces of the people I know that work there," Johnson said. "There's a lot of them — guys I coached in hockey — that now have families, and their participation in our community involvement will be a loss."

Rudeck said the company will explore future options for the Taconite Harbor plant, including using a different fuel, finding a new mission or retiring the plant altogether.

Converting the coal plant to natural gas — as Minnesota Power has done with its Laskin Energy Center in Hoyt Lakes — wouldn't be easy, Rudeck said, as the natural gas line terminates in Silver Bay, some 25 miles southwest of the plant. He mentioned the option of using biomass to fuel the plant.

"All options are on the table," he said.

Rudeck added Minnesota Power wants to work with the North Shore communities.

"I used to be a plant manager and know how ingrained they are in the community," he said.

Clean energy and environmental groups welcomed Thursday's news that Taconite Harbor's coal-fired units will be idled.

"Minnesota Power is making the right decision for Minnesotans, our health and the North Shore," Jessica Tritsch, Sierra Club senior organizing representative, said in a news release.

"This is a critical step for Minnesota, but there is more work to be done," J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy, said in a news release. "The closure of these units provides the opportunity for state regulators to continue their careful examination of how to transition Minnesota Power's energy mix to more clean and efficient sources."

"Smart, balanced planning"

Minnesota Power is a division of Allete Inc., and was noted in 2014 for meeting or exceeding state standards for renewable power, energy conservation and carbon emission reduction. Thursday's company news release said its collective actions "are estimated to reduce carbon emissions across its system 20 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2025."

Rudeck called the company's EnergyForward initiative "smart, balanced planning for our customers," citing Minnesota Power's 95 percent reliance on coal-based power just five years ago.

"We are creating a successful roadmap to a cleaner energy future," Allete Chairman, President and CEO Al Hodnik said in the company's news release. "Each year our customers are served by electricity which comes from a more diverse set of clean power sources."

Once Taconite Harbor is idle, its megawatts will be made up, Rudeck said, by purchasing additional power from the wholesale market. Taconite Harbor had previously been responsible for 225 megawatts of energy generation until closing one of its three coal-burning units earlier this year.

"Minnesota's energy landscape continues to evolve and EnergyForward is helping our region adapt to changing policy in ways that protect affordability and uphold reliability for our customers," Hodnik said in the company's news release. "This is Minnesota Power's way of answering the nation's call to reduce carbon and mitigate climate change."

Minnesota Power will add 200 to 300 megawatts of natural gas generation within the next decade, the news release said, as well as build large- and small-scale solar generation to go with its existing wind generation efforts in North Dakota.

The company also is involved in an effort to build the Great Northern Transmission Line to import electricity from Manitoba Hydro by 2020. Public meetings on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the line are scheduled to be held later this month.

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