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Local View: Xcel Energy dropped new gas; Minnesota Power should, too

From the column: "It’s still going big on fossil fuels with its proposed gas plant, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, and doesn't go far enough or fast enough to address environmental, racial, and economic justice. Minnesotans and the Northland deserve better."

Nemadji Trail Energy Center
The proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center would be located near the Husky Refinery in Superior. Contributed / Minnesota Power
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Last month, our Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, a 15-year energy plan for customers in Minnesota. The PUC approved early coal-plant retirements, significant expansion of wind and solar energy, and numerous requirements to work with community stakeholders to improve energy equity and environmental justice. All were significant victories for the clean, equitable energy future Minnesotans need and deserve. Most notably, Xcel responded to years of growing public opposition to new fossil-fuel power generation by dropping its proposal to build the Sherco combined cycle gas plant.

Now, it’s Minnesota Power’s turn.

Right now, our Northland utility’s long-term energy plan is in front of the PUC for review. Minnesota Power’s Integrated Resource Plan takes some big steps forward with a vision of 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 and plans to be coal-free in Minnesota by 2035. But it’s still going big on fossil fuels with its proposed gas plant, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, and doesn't go far enough or fast enough to address environmental, racial, and economic justice.

Minnesotans and the Northland deserve better.

The Nemadji Trail Energy Center gas plant was initially approved by the PUC in a 3-2 vote in 2018, despite an administrative law judge recommending the proposal be rejected. A lot has changed since then, calling into question outdated decisions.

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Those changes include the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issuing yet another warning of dire climate-change effects if greenhouse-gas emissions, carbon dioxide, and methane aren’t reduced immediately. Extracting gas (most often through fracking) releases methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 30 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Burning gas for power produces climate pollution, too. Building new gas infrastructure prevents us from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Last year, Minnesota Power sold off 60% of its share in the Nemadji Trail Energy Center. The sale illustrated what the Twin Ports community has been saying all along: Minnesota Power doesn’t need the gas plant. Still, selling a share of the proposed plant to a different company in a different state doesn’t negate that building the plant is a bad deal for Minnesota customers and our shared climate.

In the last two weeks, Minnesota Power’s parent company ALLETE announced its plans to acquire New Energy Equity, a distributed solar energy developer whose potential for opening solar storage capabilities is promising. Unfortunately, Minnesota Power does not maximize the potential for community and rooftop solar in its energy resource plan.

Additionally, in 2019, research by the Rocky Mountain Institute revealed that most new gas-fired projects, including the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, will become uneconomic by 2035, leaving stranded assets to financially burden power customers. And the price of gas has been trending upward again over the past two years.

Now, in 2022, our Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has the authority and responsibility to reassess its approval of the Nemadji Trail gas plant and help put Minnesota on a path to a 100% clean-energy future. The PUC must review Minnesota Power’s plan to ensure that it is reliable, affordable, and meets Minnesota’s climate and environmental policy goals.

Given the increased risks to customers, needed action on climate, and volatile costs of natural gas, Minnesota Power should be considering alternatives to this proposed plant. The PUC can and must require Minnesota Power — like Xcel Energy — to drop plans for its proposed gas plant and instead direct the company to source more cost-effective solar and wind power, plus energy efficiency and storage capacity, to provide Minnesota Power customers with a clean, affordable and equitable energy future.

This column was submitted by Jenna Yeakle of Duluth, an organizer for the Sierra Club. It was signed by her and by J.T. Haines of Duluth, a Northeastern Minnesota director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; Meghan Hassett of Chicago, a clean-energy advocate with the Union of Concerned Scientists; Lisa Franchett of Minneapolis, a volunteer and member leader of MN350; Jenna Warmuth of Duluth, the Midwest regional director for Vote Solar; and Bret Pence of Duluth, the Greater Minnesota director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light.

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