Speakers at a public hearing in Superior Tuesday all seemed to favor more renewable energy, but they couldn't agree on how to reach that goal.
Duluth-based Minnesota Power and La Crosse, Wis.-based Dairyland Power Cooperative are proposing a $700 million natural gas power plant that could produce up to 625 megawatts of power. Coined the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, it's planned for the area between Enbridge Energy's Superior Terminal and the Nemadji River in Superior.
The companies argue the plant, which burns natural gas, a fossil fuel, would supplement more solar and wind power "when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing" and that the plant is "renewable enabling."
But opponents of the project like Linda Herron of Duluth said at a public hearing hosted by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin Tuesday afternoon that the extraction and burning of a natural gas would contribute to pollution and climate change. She said the companies should use more solar and wind energy and energy storage rather than using more fossil fuels.
"Has Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power seriously considered low-cost energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage as viable alternatives to fossil fuels?" Herron said.
The Public Service Commission is weighing whether or not to approve the plant, and a decision is expected within the next several months. The public can comment on the project online until Thursday.
Herron cited a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, that says the prices of renewable resources are falling and that natural gas' role as a "bridge fuel" to help transition companies away from coal-fired plants was ending.
"The rapidly falling prices and improving capabilities of technologies that can combine to form clean energy portfolios (CEPs) — optimized combinations of wind, solar, battery storage and demand-side management that can provide the same grid services as a gas plant — call into question the cost-effectiveness of investment in new gas infrastructure," the institute said.
Other people making public comment Tuesday disagreed.
Kostiuk, who said he's worked on construction projects for both Minnesota Power and Nemadji, said deploying power stored in large batteries instead of firing up the natural gas plant wouldn't cut it just yet.
"I think that is where we need to go ... that technology is not where it needs to be right now," Kostiuk said.
Minnesota Power has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, namely coal power, since 2005 when just 5% of its power came from renewables. Since then, it's retired seven of its nine coal units and invested more in wind and solar.
Minnesota Power expects 50% of its power will be generated by renewable resources in 2021, up from 30% today.
Others voiced their support for the project because of the jobs it promises.
Jim Caesar, executive director, of the Development Association, which promotes and represents business in Douglas County, said those jobs will boost the local economy.
"The local economy benefits include construction jobs and permit full-time positions," Caesar said.
Diana Brainerd of Duluth said that jobs would be possible by building and operating more renewable resources instead of the natural gas power plant.
"I do understand that states are interested in providing really good-paying jobs, but we have to completely rebuild and reinforce our infrastructure. You have to face the new reality," Brainerd said. "I would encourage the states to find jobs in those places."