The Public Utilities Commission has ordered Xcel Energy to study the future of its Sherco coal-fired power plant.
The order formalizes a study already underway by the utility company. The study will look at the costs of running Sherco, anticipating future regulations and other variables, and is due in July.
The study could change the way the plant is operated, said Jim Alders, a strategy consultant with Xcel Energy.
"That's the crux of the matter. Should we continue to operate a very efficient, low-cost power plant that serves our customers well? Or should we replace it," Alders said. "And what are the costs of the alternatives and how does each conform with state public policy?"
Some alternatives could be replacing coal with natural gas or forms of alternative energy. Environmental groups say pollution from Sherco is a public health concern.
Kevin Reuther , legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, welcomes the look at what he says is one of the state's largest polluters.
"They will model the expense of running Sherco as compared to other alternatives, like maybe shutting one of the units down and continuing to operate one of them on coal and what would they replace the unit that the shut down with," Reuther said.