Celebrating the environmental attributes of a coal-fired plant is a bit awkward, since coal is not a clean-burning fuel. But for now, it is the dominant source of electricity in Minnesota, and there are ways to make it far less polluting by using filters and scrubbers.
At the King plant, these newly installed devices are projected to remove tens of thousands of tons worth of compounds that cause acid rain, smog and ground level ozone.
In the couple of months leading up to the official recommissioning, plant director Mark Fritsch has been testing out the new equipment. He says it has made a noticeable difference in the quality of the air surrounding the plant.
"Visually, before this was installed you could see maybe a tint in the horizon from the stack emissions, kind of a yellowish tint," says Fritsch. "With the addition of this pollution control equipment, it will be hard to tell anything is coming out."
Besides the King plant, Xcel is also updating two other coal-fired plants -- the High Bridge plant in St. Paul and the Riverside plant in Minneapolis. Both of those plants will be converted to natural gas. Together, the three plants account for about 26 percent of the power generated in Minnesota.
Some of the state's leading environmental groups worked with Xcel Energy and lawmakers on the 2001 deal to update the plants.
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The compromise plan for the King plant isn't a perfect solution, according to Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League. But overall, he's very pleased with the agreement.
"Folks like me have been critics of Xcel when it's dragging its feet, and it's time for us to step up and acknowledge them when they take leadership."
"If I'd had my complete druthers we would have found another fuel for the plant that didn't release any of those emissions. But because we were getting natural gas conversions at the other two facilities and a state-of-the-art cleanup at this one, it was part of the deal that this would continue to be a coal-burning plant," says Grant.
Xcel says it needs to keep using coal at the King plant to maintain a mix of fuel sources, so it isn't as vulnerable to volatility in the fuel markets.
The clean energy advocacy group, Fresh Energy, backs that decision. The company deserves a lot of credit for what it is doing to clean up its plants, according to executive director Michael Noble.
"Folks like me have been critics of Xcel when it's dragging its feet, and it's time for us to step up and acknowledge them when they take leadership," says Noble. "This is an example of good corporate citizenship and good leadership on the environment."
Xcel Energy was offered some big incentives to clean up its plants. The company was allowed to expand the generating capacity of all three plants. It was also given permission to collect costs associated with the project from ratepayers.
It was only fair to allow the company to recoup its expenses, Noble says.
"If customers want reliable, low-cost, environmentally-friendly power, it doesn't come free," says Noble.
On average, Xcel customers will pay an additional $1.58 per month through 2010, according to the company.
Xcel Energy has begun looking at options for cleaning up the biggest coal-fired plant on its system - the Sherco plant near Becker. Its competitor, Minnesota Power, has recently announced cleanup plans for two of its plants in northeastern Minnesota.