Minnesota regulators were correct in determining Minnesota Power's proposed $700 million natural gas power plant planned for Superior is needed and serves the public better than a renewable resource alternative, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said Monday.

Writing the opinion on behalf of the three-judge panel, which unanimously agreed, Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman said the evidence in the record supported the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's decision to approve the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.

"Minnesota Power and the (Minnesota Department of Commerce) offered extensive evidence and analyses showing that the transition away from coal and toward intermittent renewable resources impairs reliability and could increase reliance on energy markets, thereby increasing costs," Bjorkman said "Their analyses also demonstrated that NTEC addresses these concerns, providing a more reliable and lower cost (including environmental costs) source of energy than the equivalent renewable resources. Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the commission’s determination that NTEC best serves the public interest."

Minnesota Power is planning to build NTEC, a 525-625-megawatt power plant, with La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative in Superior, just 2 miles away from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border on a plot of land near Enbridge Energy's Superior terminal and the Nemadji River.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

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In a statement, Minnesota Power, which says the plant would help it move away from coal and provide power when solar and wind can't, said the decision was "an important step forward" for the project.

"The court affirmed a previous decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the Nemadji Trail Energy Center is a low-cost, flexible and necessary resource to meet the energy needs of the 145,000 customers Minnesota Power serves as it continues to lead the clean-energy transformation," the company said. "The court also agreed with the MPUC’s decision that NTEC serves the public interest better than equivalent renewable intermittent resources."

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Environmental groups have maintained that the company is not moving away from coal and to renewables fast enough and should not be replacing one fossil fuel with another.

While the burning of natural gas releases less carbon than burning coal, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

In a joint statement, opponents of the project — Sierra Club, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the Union of Concerned Scientists — called the decision "disappointing for ratepayers, local residents and people who care about our shared climate." The groups are considering appealing the decision.

"The recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed that we cannot meet our climate goals while constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure. Residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin deserve clean, renewable energy instead of a climate-polluting gas power plant that will stand for decades," the groups said.

The groups had filed the original appeal along with Honor the Earth, an Indigenous-led environmental organization that was separately represented in this case.

The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals in April by the Minnesota Supreme Court in April when it reversed an earlier decision by the Court of Appeals that said the project should have undergone an environmental review.