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Coal no more? Becker bets on natural gas, recycling and, maybe, Google

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A sign marks an entrance to the Sherburne County Generating Plant.
A sign marks an entrance to the Sherburne County Generating Plant, known as Sherco. Plant owner Xcel Energy plans to generate 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050, leaving the future of the coal-fired plant in doubt. Two of its three generators will be retired by 2026.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

It's hard to envision the central Minnesota city of Becker without the Sherburne County Generating Station, or Sherco, dominating the prairie skyline.

For more than 40 years, Sherco's huge smoke stacks have stretched into the sky on the west side of the town, churning out clouds of white steam. It's the largest coal-fired plant in the upper Midwest, generating enough electricity to power 2 million homes.

Becker, Minn.
Becker, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

Its presence here in Becker looms just as large. It provides 300 jobs and three-fourths of the city's property tax revenue. And it's been front and center in the debate over Minnesota's energy future.

Burning coal emits greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Xcel Energy, which owns Sherco, is moving to more renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, and recently announced it intends to produce 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.

"I never thought I would find myself in the middle of this battle for coal in this country," said Becker City Administrator Greg Pruszinske. "And here we are, smack-dab right in the middle."

Xcel plans to retire two of the Sherco plant's three generators in the next seven years, replacing them with a smaller natural gas plant.

So city leaders are trying to imagine a future for Becker without the fossil fuel that put it on the map. They want to diversify the local economy and bring in new businesses so the community won't flounder when the Sherco coal units are retired.

"We kind of strategize, like how best are we going to make Becker thrive?" said Mayor Tracy Bertram who's been in office for two years. "We have seen other communities, how when that one dominant industry leaves what it leaves behind ... That's not going to happen to Becker."

Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram and City Administrator Greg Pruszinske
Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram and City Administrator Greg Pruszinske stand in a Becker industrial park, where they hope to attract new businesses.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The news earlier this month that Google is looking to build a $600 million data center next to Sherco created quite a buzz among the city's roughly 5,000 residents, Bertram said. 

"I think it was a surprise to them — as well as to most of us — that we are being considered," she said. "Our citizens are, I think, a little bit surprised at our attractiveness to such a project."

For city officials, the move would fit with Becker's efforts to reinvent itself for a future without coal. And it makes perfect sense, Pruszinske said: The city has available land, electricity, nearby highways and rail lines and a ready workforce.

Xcel owns thousands of acres of land around Sherco. The city and Xcel have been working to bring in new companies to fill that space and replace some of the jobs that will be lost when the coal generators are retired.

Pruszinske said he envisions industries that produce renewable energy or electric vehicles occupying the space.

"It's flat. It's easy to build on," he said. "We're just waiting for the right client."

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Google project could create 2,000 construction jobs for 18 to 24 months, as well as 50 permanent jobs. The data center would be powered by two dedicated wind projects.

It's not clear if Google is looking at other potential locations. The company did not respond to a request for an interview.

In an interview, Chris Clark, president of Xcel's operations in Minnesota, said the Google proposal fits with the company's goal to use the land around Sherco to encourage economic development and create jobs.

"We're pleased that we were able to land what will be both a great customer for us, but also a great resource for the state and support for the community of Becker," Clark said.

Other cities have lured Google data centers with tax breaks or other financial incentives. Becker and Sherburne County officials said they haven't promised anything yet.

The idea that one of the world's largest companies could be coming here has gotten residents' attention — and mixed reactions.

On a January afternoon, Kelly Peterson was watching her 10-year-old son, Henry, swim at the Becker Community Center. It boasts a library, fitness center and two-story waterslide, all built with property tax revenue from Xcel.

Peterson said she wonders how a big company and an influx of new workers might change this town where she's raising her son and where her 90-year-old grandmother grew up.

"When she was growing up, it was really small and most of Becker was related," Peterson said. "So now it's just, I guess, progress."

Cary Rauch also lives in Becker and commutes every day to his job at a financial firm in Minneapolis. He worries that a large corporation coming here could cause Becker to lose its rural identity.

"We're a smaller town," he said. "We don't have issues with crime, typically. It's a nice, safe place to live."

Other residents spoke about the benefits Google could bring, including jobs in the tech sector that could keep younger residents from moving away.

Judy Bowatz was mayor of Becker in the 1990s. Her husband worked at Sherco for 40 years until retiring about three years ago.

When she first moved to Becker in the late 1960s, Bowatz said, there were about 350 residents, "a grocery store, a couple of bars and lots of churches."

Bowatz said the conversation about Google reminds her of the community reaction in the 1970s when Northern States Power Company built the Sherco plant.

"A lot of people didn't like that, because that would bring new people to town," she said. 

But Bowatz said the resistance didn't last long.

"Everybody integrated pretty well," she said. "And we found out that they brought a lot of wealth, they brought a lot of knowledge. They brought a lot of volunteerism. There were a lot of positive things."

Bowatz sees the possible Google project as a positive development for the city. Although it's only projected to create about 50 permanent jobs, she thinks it could lead to more growth.

"I can't see it as a negative," she said. "It could help the economy and Becker, just with other small start-up companies. And other companies will look at us too, and Xcel owns a lot of land."

Northern Metals is moving its scrap metal recycling operations.
Northern Metals is moving its scrap metal recycling operations from Minneapolis to this site near the Sherco plant. Some residents have voiced concerns about the environmental impacts, but company officials have said the new facility will have state-of-the art pollution controls.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Even if the Google center doesn't happen, Becker has other projects in the works.

Xcel plans to build a natural gas plant to replace the Sherco coal units it's retiring. That's projected to create about 150 jobs.   And Northern Metal Recycling is building a new plant next to Sherco this year, moving its scrap metal recycling operations from Minneapolis.

There's a lot of work that would need to be done to make the Google proposal a reality, Pruszinske said, including building additional roads and infrastructure. He said city officials are eager to learn more details about the company's plans.

"We are a long way from making this thing happen, but we are working hard to earn that business," he said. "We think that could be a good way for us to go in the future."