More than 70 people attended a public hearing in Duluth on Wednesday to comment on Minnesota Power's proposal to partner with another utility to build a $700 million natural gas power plant in Superior, and many of those who spoke expressed opposition to the project.

Minnesota Power wants to invest $350 million in a $700 million natural gas plant dubbed the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, splitting the cost and ownership of the plan with Dairyland Power Cooperative. The 525-to-550-megawatt plant, to be located near the Calumet refinery, would employ up to 25 people long-term and require a peak of 260 construction workers while it is built.

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Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power vice president of strategy and planning, said the utility company is moving away from coal and toward renewable energy. She said on a given day more than 50 percent of the energy the company produces is renewable, but only as long as "the wind is blowing and the sun is shining." The natural gas plant would help fill in the gaps when wind and solar energy is not available, she said.

An administrative law judge from the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings hosted the meeting, taking public comments for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is weighing Minnesota Power's request for approval of its plan to purchase about 250 megawatts of capacity from the proposed plant.

The majority of comments during the public hearing in Duluth were opposed to the construction of a new natural gas plant, with some saying that Minnesota Power was not going far enough in its commitment to using renewable energy.

Among them was Jo Haberman of Duluth, who asked the PUC to reject the proposal "in order to protect customers, our health, our climate and our environment."

"I'm one of the majority of community members who want 100 percent renewable energy for the city of Duluth. Not in some far distant future, but soon," she said. "I don't want and I can't afford to be stuck with paying $350 million for a gas plant, which the need for has not been demonstrated."

A rendering of the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center in Superior. (Image courtesy of Minnesota Power)
A rendering of the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center in Superior. (Image courtesy of Minnesota Power)

Bill Mittlefehldt of Duluth questioned whether the gas plant is the best possible investment for the utility, and its customers.

"I'm not against investing $700 million, but I don't think it's wise to put it into a gas plant when the North Pole is 36 degrees. There are other choices for the $700 million," he said. "I'm not saying don't invest. I'm not saying we don't like jobs. What I'm saying is that we need to make better choices faster, otherwise we're all going to lose together."

Among those who spoke Wednesday in favor of the plant were people who work in the building trades.

"I would think that a project like this makes so much sense from so many angles that there would be little if any opposition to it. Unfortunately, there are those in today's world that have managed to confuse, distort and obscure facts to make people question even the best and most logical improvements to our energy infrastructure," said Todd Rothe, from JR Jensen Construction in Superior. "Our company and many others in our community rely on 'temporary construction jobs' to keep our families employed."

Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce president David Ross spoke on behalf of the Chamber board in favor of the project, saying the community "benefits by being home to a successful, vibrant and strategically well-positioned utility," and adding that Minnesota Power's success is "our community's success."

"A $700 million investment in this energy center is a powerful and positive investment in our beloved Twin Ports community. Our brothers and sisters in the building trades will also benefit from the 260 construction jobs the project will employ," Ross said. "This energy center will keep our lights on, as you heard, when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining."

Comments on the matter will continue to be accepted through March 23 and can be emailed to or mailed to Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, 121 Seventh Place E., Suite 350, St. Paul, MN 55101. Comments should reference PUC Docket No. 17-568.