Utility's plan to build natural gas plant in Wis. draws Republicans' ire

Duluth-based Minnesota Power announced plans Wednesday to partner on the construction of a $700 million natural gas plant in Wisconsin, while at the same time adding more wind and solar power capacity.

The utility and Dairyland Power Cooperative, based in La Crosse, Wis., are proposing to partner to build a 525- to 550-megawatt natural gas plant in Superior, Wis., dubbed the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.

Each company would chip in $350 million; each would get about 250 megawatts of power.

"Natural gas can provide critical backup to intermittent or variable renewable sources when the sun doesn't shine, and when the wind doesn't below," Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said.

Minnesota's second-largest utility is also proposing to add 250 megawatts of wind in southwestern Minnesota, and 10 megawatts of solar near Fort Ripley in the central part of the state.

The utility intends to submit its plan later this summer to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. If approved, Minnesota Power would produce 44 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — including hydropower from Manitoba, Canada — by 2025.

In 2005, the utility generated about 95 percent of its power from coal. Since then, Minnesota Power has removed, or identified for removal, 700 megawatts of coal-fired electricity from its system.

The utility's goal is to eventually produce about two-thirds of its electricity from natural gas and renewables, and one-third from coal.

The partnership with Dairyland would be Minnesota Power's first natural gas plant. "This facility represents one of the single largest private investments in the history of Superior and Douglas County," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said in a statement.

The project would create an estimated 260 construction jobs and employ about 25 full-time workers.

But Republican lawmakers in Minnesota lamented the potential job creation across the border.

"Republicans want Minnesota Power made in Minnesota — not forced to relocate to Wisconsin," House Speaker Kurt Daudt said in a statement.

Republicans say Minnesota's regulatory process has delayed several projects over the last few years, including proposed copper-nickel mines, oil pipelines and another natural gas plant.

Rutledge said Minnesota Power surveyed sites across the Upper Midwest, and the deciding factor was the physical attributes of the site in Superior, located near an existing oil refinery.

"We identified Superior, Wisconsin as the best site because it is shovel ready, and there is access already to natural gas pipelines and transmission," she said.

If the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission signs off on Minnesota Power's resource plan, the utility anticipates adding new solar and wind capacity in the next three years. The natural gas plant would be completed in 2025.

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