Minnesota Power has asked state regulators to extend the deadline of its next required energy plan, a move that has been met by opposition from environmental groups.
The Duluth-based utility in May asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to extend its deadline for an integrated resources plan — a filing that would outline the next 15 years of the company’s expected energy demands and sources and the future of its remaining Boswell coal-fired plants in Cohasset — by six months, from October 2020 to April 2021, so it can gather input from people affected by the changes.
In comments filed this week, the organizations hired by Minnesota Power to hold stakeholder meetings ahead of the plan’s filing said only one daylong meeting in Grand Rapids was held March 9 before the pandemic-induced stay-at-home recommendations and orders were put in place, preventing it from hosting more.
The groups said they have a plan for five monthly additional half-day virtual meetings starting in July and said an extension would help make sure everyone is heard.
“While we defer to the commission and parties in assessing whether a deadline extension is in the public interest, as facilitators of this process we want to point out that one of the benefits of a stakeholder process like this is to incorporate voices that do not typically engage in PUC proceedings,” Great Plains Institute, the Center for Energy and Environment and Lasky Consulting, wrote. “Keeping the October 1st, 2020 deadline may limit our ability to meaningfully engage some stakeholders.”
But environmentalists pushed back this week, arguing it’s not in the interest of the public or of Minnesota Power customers.
“Further delaying analysis, discussion, and potential action on Minnesota Power’s coal plant dispatch will further delay these savings and emission-reduction opportunities,” Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy — representing itself, Fresh Energy, Clean Grid Alliance and the Sierra Club — wrote in comments filed Tuesday.
Minnesota Power last filed an integrated resource plan with the PUC in September 2015. The company was expected to file another plan by 2018, but the PUC has granted it several extensions so far.
In January 2019, the PUC granted the most recent extension and ordered the upcoming plan include “a baseload retirement analysis that thoroughly evaluates and includes a plan for the early retirement of Minnesota Power’s two remaining coal plants, Boswell 3 and 4, individually and in combination” and “a securitization plan that could be used to mitigate potential ratepayer impacts associated with any early retirement of one or both of the Boswell 3 and 4 facilities.”
In a press release, the environmental groups said Minnesota Power "drags its heels" on the plan and "Minnesotans have waited too long already for information about the key matters that will be addressed in the (integrated resources plan)."
Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the extension would also help the company “get a clearer picture of the (COVID-19) impacts on the economy” and pushed back on statements made by the environmental groups.
“To suggest we are dragging our feet is unfair. On the contrary — we have been moving faster and further than any other utility in the state to achieve a 50% renewable energy mix by next year,” Rutledge said in an email to the News Tribune.
Minnesota Power’s proposed extension received support from the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Department of Energy, labor unions and cities with Minnesota Power plants, like Cohasset.
Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy urged the PUC to ensure the stakeholder process isn’t rushed, noting Boswell Energy Center employs 170 workers and makes up 70% of the city’s tax base while also making sizable portions of the Itasca County and Grand Rapids school district tax bases.
“Decisions about Boswell that could shape our community’s collective future for decades should not be rushed,” Hagy wrote. “We appreciate and support Minnesota Power’s request to take the time necessary to have a robust stakeholder process that includes our perspective.”
Boswell Units 3 and 4 are the utility's last coal-fired generators that, at 355 and 585 megawatts, respectively, are considered the backbone of Minnesota Power's system. In recent years, the company has shut down its other coal units at its Laskin facility in Hoyt Lakes, Taconite Harbor on the North Shore and Boswell units 1 and 2 as it relies on more wind, hydroelectric and solar power.
Environmental groups maintain Minnesota Power’s upcoming plan must include the closure of Boswell to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“We need a plan for the closure of Boswell that includes support for the workers at the plant and for the host community of Cohasset,” Evan Mulholland, MCEA’s senior staff attorney, said in the group’s release. ”And we need a plan for faster adoption of renewables. We are excited for this (integrated resource plan). We think it’s going to show that more wind and solar and storage are going to be better for everyone.”