On a cold, rainy day in early October, five young activists calling themselves “Friends of the Climate” held a news conference outside Minnesota Power's Duluth headquarters to voice their opposition to the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a $700 million natural gas plant proposed to be built in neighboring Superior, Wis.
"It is my future, my generation’s future at stake here," shouted 16-year old Izzy Laderman, a student at Duluth East High School. "It makes no sense to me why they want to add another plant, except that the people in charge are so stuck in the toxic tradition of fossil fuels.”
Natural gas may be better than coal, said Elizabeth Evans, a senior at Superior High School. But “renewable energy sources are the only answer to reverse climate change and save the earth.”
Natural gas was once viewed as an important tool in the fight against global climate change — a cleaner burning, less carbon-intensive fossil fuel that could help replace dirtier coal-fired power plants.
But as coal has rapidly declined, and natural gas has plummeted in price, utilities across the country have proposed dozens of new natural gas plants. And that’s shifted the target of environmentalists fighting climate change from coal to natural gas.
“The battle in Minnesota is very emblematic of the battles that are happening all over the country,” said Dan Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
“Coal plants are closing left and right, and wind and solar have become the cheapest options for building new electricity,” he said. “But they haven't been scaling up quite fast enough to replace coal as quickly as it's closing. And so you've had natural gas stepping into the void.”
Nemadji Trail Energy Center
Minnesota Power is partnering with LaCrosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative to build the proposed new plant in Superior, dubbed the Nemadji Trail Energy Center. The two utilities would split the $700 million cost of the plant, which would generate at least 525 megawatts of electricity.
Minnesota Power officials say the plant, which would be the utility’s first natural gas facility, is needed to help balance out the variability of renewable technologies like wind and solar.
It “will play an important role in providing energy reliability when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing," the utility’s Jennifer Peterson told protesters at the rally earlier this month.
Minnesota Power is the state’s second largest utility. Its service territory includes huge electricity consumers like iron ore mines and paper mills across northeast Minnesota. It’s undergone a massive shift in how it produces electricity over the past 15 years.
In 2005, the utility generated 95 percent of its electricity from coal. By 2021, that's expected to drop to 50 percent. The utility has shuttered several small, aging coal plants, and replaced them with wind, solar and hydropower.
The utility plans to continue that transition towards carbon-free fuel sources. But Julie Pierce, vice president of Strategy and Planning for Minnesota Power, said natural gas is a key part of that overall transformation.
"We need to be realistic about how when you add renewables with wind and solar and other technologies, that you need something there to provide power 24 by 7," she said.
Environmental groups fighting the natural gas plant agree that Minnesota Power has made significant progress in moving away from coal and towards wind and solar. But the science on climate pollution, they say, is not very forgiving.
"We have a budget of a certain amount of climate pollution that we can emit before we start hitting climate change impacts that will be very costly to deal with, and will potentially upend a great deal of our economic system," said Kevin Lee, climate and energy program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Lee said natural gas may have been a bridge to a cleaner future a decade ago, but now Minnesota can’t reach its climate change goals by building additional fossil fuel generating plants that could emit carbon for decades to come.
Toward a carbon-free future
Several states and utilities around the country are pledging to produce 100 percent carbon-free electricity within the next 25 to 30 years. Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, has announced plans to hit that target by 2050.
While that transition is speeding up, "we also know that we're not ready to have a 100 percent renewable grid. Just scaling it up is going to take time,” explained Rice University’s Dan Cohan.
“So you have a lot of utilities all over the country facing this dilemma about exactly how much should natural gas be part of the mix, and how do we make sure that it's a bridge to a cleaner future, rather than a roadblock that crowds out wind and solar?"
Cohan said in some parts of the country natural gas will be needed to balance out more intermittent, renewable sources of energy. But he said in other places, that can be done using emerging battery technologies, a mix of renewable sources from different locations, and by utilizing existing coal or natural gas plants, rather than by building new ones.
Carbon-capture technology may also play an important role. Minnesota Power officials say the Nemadji Trail plant would be flexible, and could be easily converted to use emerging technologies like renewable natural gas or hydrogen should they become commercially viable.
Decisions on power plants are being made amid a broader debate on limiting carbon emissions. Several states, including California, are aiming for net zero emissions by 2045. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has proposed producing 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.
"I think the risk to Minnesota ratepayers is that they're being asked to pay for half of the cost of a plant without really knowing how viable it's going to be to operate this 20 years from now," said Cohan.
Minnesota regulators narrowly approved the project last year, but several Minnesota environmental groups have challenged that decision. The Minnesota Court of Appeals will issue a ruling on that challenge by early next year.
If the plant survives those legal challenges, and wins approval from Wisconsin regulators, Minnesota Power is hoping to begin construction by early 2021, and begin operating the plant in 2025.