Regulators could decide this week whether Minnesota Power can go ahead with its plans to build a $700 million natural-gas plant in Superior.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center is needed or in the public interest during a public meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the Duluth City Council chambers.

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Minnesota Power wants to build the 550-megawatt plant with Dairyland Power Cooperative on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy's Superior terminal and the Nemadji River.

The Duluth-based utility argues the project would support its expanding solar and wind energy production because it would provide a reliable backup source "when the wind isn't blowing and sun isn't shining."

Opponents disagree, and on Monday they gathered in a conference room in downtown Duluth's Ordean Building to make their case to local media that natural gas isn't a clean or renewable energy source, and the plant's construction would raise Minnesota Power customers' rates.

Courtney Cochran of the Sierra Club said the proposed plant was bad for the environment and customers and could lead to rate hikes.

"We support the strong, unbiased recommendations of the administrative law judge to deny this gas-plant proposal," she said.

In July, Administrative Law Judge Jeanne M. Cochran said the project is not needed or in the public interest, and should be rejected by the PUC.

"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 in her non-binding recommendation.

On March, 11 Northland mining, paper and energy companies, which consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power's electricity, voiced opposition to the proposed plant because, in part, the companies argued there are cheaper ways of ensuring reliable energy.

Minnesota Power set a goal of reaching 44 percent renewable energy by 2025. The company says it is currently at 30 percent.

"It really is going to position our customers and our resources to be more beneficial to our customers," said Julie Pierce, vice president of strategy and planning at Minnesota Power.

Although an exact rate increase for customers is not known, Pierce said that if the plant were built today, it would result in a 2 percent rate increase for users.

For an average monthly Minnesota Power bill of $87, that's about $1.74, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge explained.

Minnesota Power hopes to have the plant operational in 2025. The company would split the cost and the output with Dairyland Power.

If approved by the PUC, Minnesota Power would then move through the permitting processes and a similar regulatory process in Wisconsin, Pierce said.

If denied, Pierce said, "We'll need to go back and look at how else we can meet that (energy) need."

Superior Mayor Jim Paine has long supported the project, citing its ability to create jobs, improve the tax base and generate nearly $1 million in annual stormwater fees.

Meanwhile, two Duluth city councilors, Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund, have filed letters with the PUC opposing the project.

"There are more sustainable and cost-effective solutions to our region's energy demand than the fracked gas plant that has been proposed," Westerlund wrote.