Xcel Energy changes course, new plan does not include Becker gas plant

The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline.
The Sherburne County Generating Station dominates the skyline near Becker, Minn. Xcel Energy is proposing a new energy plan for the next 15 years that does not include building a new natural gas plant in Becker.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2019

Updated: 1:29 p.m.

Bowing to calls to speed up its transition away from fossil fuels, Xcel Energy is proposing a new energy plan for the next 15 years that does not include building a controversial new natural gas plant in Becker.

In the alternate plan submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Friday, Xcel instead proposes adding four smaller natural gas facilities — two new ones in Lyon County and Fargo, N.D., and two repowered ones in the Twin Cities metro area and Wisconsin — that would run much less frequently.

Xcel’s new plan still proposes to close all the region’s remaining coal plants by 2030, and keep the Monticello nuclear plant operating until at least 2040 — 10 years longer than its current license.

It also would add more solar and wind power, as well as energy storage for renewable energy that would be added around 2030, at a site not yet determined.

Xcel says its alternate plan saves about $600 million from its earlier proposal. It would reduce carbon emissions 85 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, compared to 80 percent in its previous plan. The utility has said it wants to produce carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Xcel says it’s responding to strong opposition to its earlier proposal to build a 786-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas plant at the site of the Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker. Thousands of people commented on Xcel’s original resource plan, many calling for it to abandon the idea of adding a new fossil fuel plant amid growing concerns about the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change.

“We really did take seriously the comments that were filed,” said Chris Clark, president of Xcel in Minnesota, North and South Dakota. “And we also believe we needed to step back and be able to answer for the commission whether there was an alternative to the (Becker) combined-cycle plant that would still preserve affordability and reliability.”

Unlike a combined-cycle plant, which runs almost continuously, the four smaller facilities would only operate about 5 percent of the time — when the sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t blowing or in the case of an emergency power situation, said Bria Shea, director of regulatory strategy for Xcel.

But the Becker plant proposal also has plenty of supporters in Sherburne County, which is bracing for the economic impact when Xcel shutters the Sherco coal-fired power plant there over the next decade.

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.

Clark said he knows many people will still want to push for the Becker plant to be built. He said Xcel will continue to work on ways to support economic development in Sherburne County, including its plans for a large solar facility there.

“I think that's part of the dialogue that we want to have, is what are the things that we can do to continue to support the city of Becker, Sherburne County … that have been such a great host to the Sherco facility,” he said.

Clark said Xcel will ask the Public Utilities Commission to approve the alternate proposal, but would be happy if either of the plans are approved.

It’s possible that the commission will ask for additional public input before making a decision later this year, Shea said.

Several environmental groups praised Xcel’s new proposal. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Fresh Energy and other groups issued a statement calling it “a welcome and necessary realignment” with the utility’s promise to be carbon-free by 2050.

“We appreciate Xcel’s willingness to respond to Minnesota and the nation’s imperative to get to 100 percent clean energy sooner, while minimizing fossil fuels,” they stated. However, the groups said they also plan to study the proposal further, including whether building two new smaller gas plants is truly necessary, or if there are carbon-free alternatives.