Xcel natural gas plant bill gets new momentum from House, Dayton

Legislation allowing Xcel Energy to build a new natural gas plant at the site of a coal plant in Becker has new momentum after Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday he would sign it.

Dayton made clear he supports the Senate version of the bill, which wouldn't let the plant fully bypass the Public Utilities Commission. That version requires Xcel to present an independent cost analysis before the PUC.

Xcel Energy wants to build the natural gas plant to replace the two Sherco coal-fired generators that are scheduled for retirement by 2026. The PUC stopped short of endorsing a specific natural gas plant during regulatory proceedings last year. The DFL governor said he views this project as an exception to the normal, protracted regulatory review, because Sherco has been an important driver of economic development in the Becker area. The plant currently employs about 350 people.

“Giving them this assurance that there’s going to be a successor plant is really vitally important to their economic growth and the security of people living and working there," he said.

The Xcel natural gas bill is just one piece of Republican-sponsored legislation that would bypass the PUC or trim its authority. Dayton defended the PUC, saying it serves a critical regulatory role.

"The other attempts to undermine or circumvent the PUC, I totally, strongly oppose,” the governor said, adding that the separate legislative efforts to try weaken the commission are “irresponsible” and “shortsighted.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota House passed its version of the Xcel natural gas bill on a 77-51 vote. The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Newberger of Becker, said the PUC acknowledged a natural gas plant was needed. He said it's time to bring certainty to Xcel and his community.

"This has been before the PUC, 18,000 pages of documents relating to this. Hearing after hearing after hearing. This has been ground through the process at the PUC," he said.

But DFL Representative Jim Davnie of Minneapolis says the House bill goes too easy on Xcel.

"They get a pass. They get a hall pass on the process that protects my constituents as rate payers, that protects my constituents as people who breathe air each and every day," he said.

Rate payer advocates have urged lawmakers to include language in the bill that would protect them from possible rate increases and push Xcel to keep its construction costs low. Xcel has said the plant will cost about $800 million, though some clean energy advocates have pointed out it could cost another $200 million to build a natural gas pipeline to the plant.

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