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Local View: Minnesota Power plan fails to sever dependence on fossil fuels

The plan should instead follow Xcel and Great River Energy by planning the future around renewables and storage.

Craig Sterle.jpg
Craig Sterle
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The International Panel on Climate Change has increasingly ramped up warnings of climate calamity unless we all begin to rapidly decarbonize to ensure that future generations are left with an inhabitable world. Wealthier, more industrialized countries emit 80% of the greenhouse gasses and must shoulder the lion's share of emission reductions. The two largest segments needing reduction are transportation and power generation.

This brings us to Minnesota Power’s integrated resource plan, which forecasts power needs and production for the coming 15 years. Minnesota Power’s plan is a disappointment, characterized by a sloth-like pace to reduce the company’s dependence on fossil fuels. It fails to discuss Minnesota Power’s involvement in the proposed natural gas power plant, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center. It also fails to incorporate energy storage, to heed the International Panel on Climate Change’s warnings to eliminate all use of fossil fuels by aggressively incorporating proven renewable energy production and storage technologies, and to adequately deal with environmental justice and a just transition for displaced workers and their communities.

The Minnesota Department Commerce is pushing for an earlier closure date for Minnesota Power’s Boswell coal plant ( “State agency, attorney general differ on Minnesota Power’s future,” May 3). Clean energy technologies already exist and are cheaper than coal. In addition, with the recent rise in the cost of natural gas, renewables today are cheaper than any fossil fuel.

While Minnesota Power’s integrated resource plan calls for some increase in renewables, it fails to sever dependence on fossil fuels. The plan should instead follow Xcel and Great River Energy by planning the future around renewables and storage.

Because it fails to do so, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission must now direct Minnesota Power to add additional renewables, and storage, to its planning efforts. The commission must ensure that Minnesota Power will be carbon-free by 2035, rather than 2050, so we can meet carbon-reduction goals and maintain a livable world.

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To be clear, Minnesota Power’s proposal to convert the Boswell Unit 4 to natural gas from coal would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t go nearly far enough. Being “coal-free” and “carbon-free” are two distinctly different goals, and this integrated resource plan should lead directly to the latter. To do otherwise would be a failure in regulatory oversight, one that would also cost customers more money in the long run and send customer money out of state rather than recirculating it locally with homegrown clean energy installation contractors.

Not mentioned in Minnesota Power’s integrated resource plan are health benefits associated with ending fossil-fuel use. Burning fossil fuels produces significant amounts of particulate pollution, which contributes to lung and heart disease as well as mercury emissions that harm fetal development and contribute to neural dysfunction in adults. This is why the Minnesota Department of Health issues fish-consumption warnings. Minnesota Power’s statement that coal plants “exceed state and federal guidelines” ignores that the plants still discharge pollutants. Only a no-emission scenario would help lead to no deaths.

Minnesota Power’s integrated resource plan would prolong fossil-fuel use, contributing to a more rapid and more painful withdrawal from fossil fuels in the years ahead. Researchers at the attorney general’s office see this, and they recommend ending the proposed Nemadji Trail project. They see the integrated resource plan’s demand forecast as “illusory,” because it includes electrical demand from the proposed PolyMet mine, which is mired in permitting and legal disputes with no end in sight.

The integrated resource plan continues to depend on old technology to solve the reliability question. Xcel and Great River Energy are instead investing in more renewables and storage. Minnesota Power must break out of its fossil-fuel dependence and embrace storage. It’s not needed today, though it is available. The plan can incorporate storage in the back half of the 15-year planning period, giving a wide array of storage research and development options additional time to prove these technologies and prepare for the eventual buildout to scale.

The News Tribune’s May 3 article additionally touched on how this transition from fossil fuels to renewables will impact workers and how the state can help with that challenge. A measure under discussion at the Capitol would use a tool called “securitization” to allow utilities to refinance debt at a lower interest rate, saving customers money and investing some of the savings in retraining and other benefits for displaced workers.

This integrated resource plan must “seize the day” by moving toward the future rather than hanging onto the past.

The public is urged to submit comments to the Public Utilities Commission on Minnesota Power’s plan by June 30 by clicking on "Docket No. E-015/RP-21-33” at mn.gov/puc/consumers/public-comments/ . Or call the commission at 800-657-3782.

Craig Sterle of Barnum is the past president of the Minnesota division of the Izaak Walton League of America and a member of the league's local W.J. McCabe chapter. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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