Minnesota Power will have four extra months to prepare its next required energy plan.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday set a Feb. 1 deadline for the Duluth-based utility's integrated resource plan — filings 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. The company will have to submit interim reports in the fall.
The four-month extension is shorter than the six-month extension requested by Minnesota Power in May. The company said the extension was necessary because the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted stakeholder engagement plans, making the Oct. 1 deadline unrealistic, but environmental groups pushed back on the company's request, arguing the company had been given enough extensions already.
"We’re pleased that the (PUC) agreed that our request for an extension was reasonable and for the support from regional community stakeholders most directly impacted by potential outcomes of the (integrated resource plan),” Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power vice president of strategy and planning, said in a news release.
Since filing its last integrated resource plan in 2015, Minnesota Power was expected to file another plan by 2018, but the PUC has granted the company several extensions so far.
In his opening comments at the PUC meeting, Evan Mulholland, attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which is representing itself, Fresh Energy, Clean Grid Alliance and the Sierra Club, argued against any extension.
"Our position is that the (integrated resource plan) should not again be delayed," Mulholland said. "The economics of power generation have changed a lot since 2015, and it's really important for everyone that the data on climate breakdown and global heating is getting worse. We ask the commission to direct Minnesota Power to complete its modeling and submit its (integrated resource plan) this year — in 2020."
Amid the climate change crisis, there has been increased pressure on Minnesota Power to retire Boswell units 3 and 4, 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. Minnesota Power is expected to reach 50% renewable sources in 2021.
In its last extension, granted in January 2019, the PUC ordered Minnesota Power to study plans for "early retirement" of Boswell's units 3 and 4, which is anytime before 2035.
Earlier this summer, local governments, unions and the Minnesota Department of Commerce wrote the PUC in support of Minnesota Power's proposed extension so there was enough time for stakeholders to weigh in on Boswell's future.
In the meeting, PUC Chair Katie Sieben said she could see both sides of the extension argument, but ultimately sided with Commissioner Matt Schuerger, who proposed the fourth-month extension instead of six months.
"The reason I would lean towards four months is just because this (integrated resource plan) has already been extended previously and it feels like, according to statute, we need to continue to take a close look at this (integrated resource plans) in a somewhat timely manner," Sieben said.
Commissioner Valerie Means said she supported an extension, but preferred six months instead of four and was the lone opposing vote of the extension.
"I don't support four months because I don't think that's practical or realistic or will provide for a meaningful filing that can be analyzed appropriately for evaluation by the (PUC)," Means said.