Our hometown electricity provider, Minnesota Power, has the responsibility to ensure that the electricity we use in our homes and businesses contributes to healthy, sustainable, and life-affirming communities. Minnesota Power could do this by adding more renewable-energy capacity, like wind and solar power, and by helping customers increase their energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, Minnesota Power is missing these opportunities by doubling down on its reliance on fossil fuels. It’s not moving as far or as fast as it could; it’s largely continuing business as usual.

Right now, Minnesota Power can reduce air and climate pollution and cut down on customers’ electric bills by running its Boswell coal-fired power units only when it is economical to do so. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered Minnesota Power to investigate by March 2020 whether running the Boswell coal plant less often could save customers money. Minnesota Power missed this deadline and said it would look at the issue in future planning.

So we with the Sierra Club looked into it for Minnesota Power: Our analysis showed that our Duluth-based utility could respond to the climate and economic crisis by running its coal plant less. It could consider how Xcel Energy found that it could save customers tens of millions of dollars by running its coal plants only when it makes economic sense to do so, rather than running them all the time and passing on losses to customers. (As a bonus, this would also reduce Minnesota Power’s carbon dioxide pollution by 5 million tons per year.)

Minnesota Power is also neglecting Boswell coal plant workers and surrounding communities by requesting to extend the deadline for the utility's resource plan, a 15-year outlook on how it plans to generate electricity. We know the coal industry is in rapid decline due to changing economics and a growing understanding of the need to address the climate crisis. Our utility is leaving coal plant workers and communities in the dark at a time when they deserve a clear timeline and strategy so transition planning can immediately begin.

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Minnesota Power seems to be rushing ahead with plans to add a fracked gas plant to its “balanced energy mix.” The proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center would cost ratepayers more than $350 million, plus the cost for pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant. If built, Nemadji Trail would emit more than 1 million tons of carbon per year, destroy carbon-sequestering wetlands, and leave ratepayers on the hook for paying for the plant when lower-cost renewable-energy options are available.

Minnesota Power is clear in its values: Bill customers for fossil-fuel systems that hurt and divide communities, perpetuate the climate crisis, and send money to the pockets of investors.

Nearly one-third of households in the U.S. are struggling to pay their electric bills, according to National Public Radio, and we are still in the midst of a global pandemic with a disease that is exacerbated by air pollution. We know that Black and Indigenous communities, people of color, and low-income communities are experiencing disproportionate financial impacts and higher rates of illness and death from the coronavirus pandemic, as the Washington Post and others have reported. Minnesota Power has the responsibility to reduce this burden. Now is not the time for Minnesota Power to be shirking its responsibility to our communities. Now is not the time to build a fracked gas plant when cleaner, more-affordable energy solutions are available. Now is the time for Minnesota Power to look for ways to save customers money. Its so-called EnergyForward plan is costing customers and advancing the climate crisis.

When our state and country are experiencing severe economic turmoil and uncertainty, we need our power companies to make smart choices for the future. Changing the way Minnesota Power operates Boswell — so that the plant responds to market signals rather than burning coal all the time, even when it doesn’t make economic sense — is a no-brainer for customers and the climate. Now is the time to engage in robust worker and community transition planning in preparation for the inevitable retirement of the Boswell coal-fired plant. These are necessary steps forward, and the longer we wait the more difficult they will become.

Minnesotans deserve clean air and fair, affordable energy. Now is the time to equitably invest in our communities across the Northland and set a path toward 100% renewable energy, transforming systems so that they work for Minnesotans and our home.

Jenna Yeakle of Duluth is an organizer for the Sierra Club.