In Becker, little shock over news of coal plant's early demise

The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline.
The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline near Becker, Minn. Xcel Energy has said it plans to retire all three of the plant's generating units by 2030.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The Sherco power plant is hard to miss in Becker.

The central Minnesota community was already bracing for two of the plant's three coal-fired generators to close in the next few years.

Then, last week came the announcement that the entire plant could close, much sooner than expected.

Xcel Energy said it wants to retire its two remaining coal-burning plants in the Upper Midwest. That includes the Allen S. King plant in Oak Park Heights, which it plans to close in 2028, and all three units at the Sherburne County Generating Station — Sherco — by 2030.

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

Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram said residents are still absorbing Xcel's latest announcement.

"A lot of people were like, 'What does this mean for us? How are we doing?'" she said.

It's hard to overemphasize just how important the Sherco plant has been to Becker. It employs about 300 people, and provides 75 percent of the city's tax base. But last week's news didn't come as a huge shock to people in Becker, especially at city hall.

"We know that coal in this country is under attack, going away, however you want to state it," said city administrator Greg Pruszinske. "That's why we have been so engaged."

Pruszinske has been working for years to get the city to move beyond its dependence on coal. He's also been lobbying state legislators to approve financial assistance for his and other cities that host large power plants.

Becker isn't the only city facing this challenge, Pruszinske said.

"I think there are logical ways that we can make this transition happen, whether it's Becker or Oak Park Heights or across the nation," he said. "But it takes everybody working together ... to continue to have communities that are sustainable and vibrant, and not withering away because a large employer left."

Xcel, Minnesota's largest utility company, also intends to keep its nuclear plant in nearby Monticello running until at least 2040, and add more wind and solar energy generation to its electricity mix.

Construction is underway on the new Northern Metal Recycling facility.
Construction is underway on the new Northern Metal Recycling facility near the Sherco plant, one of the businesses expected to bring new jobs to the Becker community.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Bertram said many Becker residents are focused on new development and businesses coming to town. Xcel plans to build a natural gas plant on the Sherco site that will preserve about 150 jobs. Northern Metal Recycling is building a new recycling facility next to the plant, and tech giant Google has proposed building a $600 million data center that would employ about 50 permanent workers.

"I think that a lot of the citizens are hopeful about what is going to be happening, that they're focused there instead of the doom and gloom," Bertram said.

She said Xcel's plans to add more wind and solar to its energy mix has been helpful to the city's efforts to attract new businesses like Google.

"That has been really helpful with attracting of larger businesses because that is the future that they want," Bertram said. "Our game plan doesn't really change in regards to attracting businesses that still want power. Now it's renewable power."

A few blocks away at the Coach House Restaurant, a handful of regulars sit in booths, drinking coffee. Through the windows, the Sherco plant is visible across Highway 10.

Nagy Attia has owned the restaurant for four years, although he's in the process of selling it to new owners. Attia said he has mixed feelings about the coal plant closing.

Nagy Attia, owner of the Coach House Restaurant, poses for a portrait.
Nagy Attia, owner of the Coach House Restaurant, takes a break from the breakfast shift on May 22, 2019, to talk about the impact of the Sherco plant closure on the Becker community.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"You talk about pollution and you talk about the environment. I don't know if it's the right decision or not," he said. "I'm being honest with you. Because coal, you know, it's very cheap energy."

Attia isn't sure what effect the plant closing will have on business, which he said already can be slow on weekdays.

"Put it this way, Becker — as a town, they call it the bedroom town," Attia said. "They like to keep it small."

Becker resident Adam Maskowski ran unsuccessfully for city council a few years ago. He said he's not happy about the plant shutting down, because it's contributed to Becker's success.

"The flip side of it is if it's something that's going to invite new businesses and more people to town, then that can be a good thing," Maskowski said.

But he's cautious about getting too excited about promises of new development and businesses coming to Becker.

"These projects have been approved. But until they actually put a shovel in the ground and they do something, it doesn't really matter," Maskowski said. "It kind of gives a false sense of hope."

Rose Thelen, a volunteer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.
Rose Thelen, a volunteer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, stands in the yard of her home in Clearwater Township a few miles away from the Sherco plant. She has been pushing for an end to the burning of coal for energy production in favor of renewable energy.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

About 6 miles away from Becker, Clearwater Township supervisor Rose Thelen can see Sherco's smokestacks from the back of her 53-acre property on a clear day.

Thelen is a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, a grassroots lobbying effort pushing for a transition toward renewable energy. She said she got involved out of concern about climate change and how the burning of coal is a major source of carbon emissions.

Thelen said initially, local residents were concerned about the prospect of the plant closing. But she said as the price of wind and solar energy have dropped, attitudes have been changing.

"I went to a harvest festival a couple years ago in Becker and people were saying, 'Well, that train's left the station, and we need to do something,'" Thelen said. "That was heartening."

But even if the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approves Xcel's plan, Thelen, 70, said it will still be more than a decade before Sherco would start coming down.

"I hope to live that long," she said.

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