Dayton signs bill allowing natural gas plant in Becker

Gov. Mark Dayton today signed a bill giving Xcel Energy the authority to build a new natural gas power plant in Becker, Minn., to replace capacity lost when part of its Sherco coal plant retires.

Xcel and lawmakers from central Minnesota had pushed for the bill, saying the plant would ease the transition both in terms of electrical grid stability and economic stability from the jobs and property tax revenue flowing into Becker and Sherburne County.

"The support we've gotten across the board is truly a good example of government at its finest," said Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, after shaking Dayton's hand during a bill-signing ceremony in the governor's office.

The gas plant will preserve about 150 jobs in Becker plus create construction jobs.

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"It's a good example of how we can blend how we put our energy needs of the future together with the working people of Minnesota," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, a retired pipefitter.

Xcel Minnesota President Chris Clark said coal makes up about a third of Xcel's electricity today, but he said Xcel will be doubling its renewable energy capacity between now and 2030.

"We originally thought we were going to bring in 800 to 1,000 megawatts of wind energy, we're actually expecting to bring in for approval over 1,500 megawatts," he said. "Minnesota will continue to charge ahead as an energy leader. This gas plant provides us the needed reliability to balance our system."

Dayton's signing of the natural gas bill came a day after his administration announced a proposal to boost Minnesota's renewable energy standard to 50 percent by 2030. He said the two actions "are very much in alignment."

"The renewable component is significant, and going from coal-burning to natural gas burning is, of course, a big improvement for the environment," Dayton said.

Critics of the legislation have questioned whether the gas plant will cost rate payers more than other, cleaner alternatives. They also argued giving Xcel the green light on a gas plant circumvents the detailed process before the Public Utilities Commission designed to protect energy consumers and the environment.

Correction (March 1, 2017): An earlier version of this story indicated Sherco provides property tax revenue to Becker County and Sherburne County. It provides property tax revenue to the city of Becker and Sherburne County.