Opinions plentiful on Xcel’s plan to cut coal, add natural gas

The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline.
The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline near Becker, Minn. in May 2019. Xcel Energy has said it plans to retire all three of the plant's generating units by 2030.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2019

Thousands of Minnesotans have weighed in on Xcel Energy’s energy plan for the next 15 years, which includes closing its remaining coal plants in Minnesota and building a new natural gas plant in Becker.

Friday is the final day to submit public comments on Xcel’s integrated resource plan, which outlines the different energy sources the utility needs to serve customers through 2034.

Xcel plans to stop generating electricity by burning coal by 2030, replace its coal-fired Sherco plant in Becker with a natural gas plant and invest in more wind and solar energy.

The utility also intends to keep operating its nuclear power plant in Monticello until 2040 — 10 years beyond the expiration of its current license.

Advocacy organizations, state agencies, cities, counties and individuals have weighed in with strong opinions on the plan, which requires approval by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. A handful of groups submitted their own competing plans.

Those concerned about climate change have praised Xcel’s commitment to move away from coal and toward cleaner energy that emits fewer greenhouse gases. Xcel has said it wants to be carbon-free by 2050, while Gov. Tim Walz has set a goal for Minnesota to produce 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

However, many of the same commenters say the utility’s plans to build a new fossil fuel plant are unnecessary and unwise.

Erik Hillesheim of Eagan wrote that that plan is “a blatant disregard for the simple science of climate change and the effects it’s already having on Minnesotans.”

“Not only will this add more emissions, warming, pollution and negative health outcomes for Minnesotans, but it's also contrary to the progress that Xcel says it wants to make,” Hillesheim wrote. “I expect so much more from Xcel and the state to protect our citizens and move us towards a renewable future.”

Kate Winsor, a retired wildlife biologist and climate activist who lives in North Oaks, said natural gas still emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases, particularly methane during extraction and production. She would prefer to see Xcel commit to more rooftop and community solar projects.

“This gas plant will cost customers billions of dollars, which is a lot of money to spend on something other than clean energy,” Winsor wrote.

Xcel received special authority from the Minnesota Legislature four years ago to build the natural gas plant, bypassing the traditional route of getting approval from state regulators.

Mark Kolbinger, a public school teacher in Becker, wrote that the Sherco plant has been a fixture in his city for decades. He said the new gas plant is needed not only to provide local tax revenue but also to ensure that the state has reliable electricity.

“Many other cities over the years denied NSP (now Xcel Energy) the chance to locate in their town, but Becker opened its arms,” Kolbinger said. “Please allow us to have this diversity that is needed in our electrical grid.”

In recent years, the price of solar and wind energy has fallen dramatically, making it competitive, and in some cases, cheaper than fossil fuels. But some commenters said Xcel should continue burning coal and natural gas to keep electricity affordable and reliable.

“Minnesota already has raised the cost of energy too high with solar and wind power,” wrote Marlene McCoy of Little Falls. “Senior citizens like my husband and I are strapped with living expenses, and they will only go higher as the environmentalists push their agendas.”

Xcel first filed its resource plan back in July 2019, but had to revise it after the Public Utilities Commission rejected its purchase of a natural gas plant in Mankato. The revised plan was submitted in June 2020.

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