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Paul Austin

Exec. Director, Conservation Minnesota

Minnesota’s biggest smoker kicks the habit

I was born in the very heart of West Virginia’s coal mining country.  Many nights I was rocked to sleep by the sound of loaded trains on the tracks behind our house along the Big Coal River. The coal industry played an integral part in my formative years as my father, a local minister, worked to stem the pollution and associated health issues that affected the people in his parish. 

The links between burning coal and human health are as inescapable today as they were in my childhood. The American Lung Association has linked increased carbon pollution to elevated rates of asthma and heart disease nationwide.  And the increased mercury pollution that is also created has been linked to birth defects as well as harmful impacts on plants and animals. Mercury pollution is the driving force behind fish consumption warnings that limit how much fish we can eat from local lakes and streams. 

That’s why all Minnesotans should applaud Xcel Energy’s announcement that it will be transitioning its Sherco 1 & 2 plants in Becker from coal to natural gas fired operations. In addition, this retirement calls for 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy, including a new 50 megawatt solar installation at the site of the Sherco plant in Becker. These plants combine to make up the state’s largest coal-burning power plant.  Together, Minnesota’s coal-fired power plants produce one third of all of Minnesota’s carbon pollution. 

This week, 11,000 petitions were delivered to the Public Utilities Commission asking that Xcel Energy’s 2015 Resource Plan include a total phase out of the Sherco plants. 

Xcel Energy has listened, and their commitment to moving away from the old, dirty ways of the past into cleaner, greener alternatives that are becoming cheaper by the day is evident.   

But in a last ditch effort to maintain the status quo, our neighbors to the northwest, are attempting to lure us back with claims that coal remains the safest and most inexpensive option for energy production.  They want to make sure the dirty energy they produce in North Dakota and sell to Minnesotans isn’t replaced by renewables that are now both cheaper and cleaner.  

Whether it’s our families, our waters or our personal health, in Minnesota, we have a belief in protecting what we love.

Xcel has embraced this ideal, and they deserve our support as they continue to look for opportunities to break our dependence on coal, support homegrown energy jobs and move toward a healthier energy future. Many thanks to everyone at Xcel Energy who worked on this plan to help Minnesota’s biggest smoker kick the habit.  

Rochester and Duluth-based Minnesota Power to find coal alternatives

It seems Independence Day took on a whole new meaning this year as the result of a couple of announcements that few people likely even noticed. 

Just before the long holiday weekend, the Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) Board announced that they have a plan in place to make Minnesota’s third largest city independent from coal-fired energy production by 2030. This will be the time its current energy purchase agreement with the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency expires. 

And then just after the holiday, Duluth-based Minnesota Power announced that it would stop burning coal in its Taconite Harbor 1 & 2 plants in Schroeder on the North Shore by the year 2020. 

While neither announcement received a great deal of publicity, each of these organizations deserves praise for recognizing and addressing the issues created by our continued dependence on coal. For example, in addition to established links to increased asthma and heart disease rates, scientists have also found that coal-power plants are a key contributor to increased mercury levels in our lakes. 

The announcement from RPU is especially exciting. We know they recently conducted a poll of its users that asked questions about coal independence. While they have yet to release the results of their polling, the timing of this announcement makes it seem highly likely that the people’s voice was heard loud and clear. 

And a recent survey conducted by Conservation Minnesota found a great deal of support for increasing the use of renewable energy and decreasing dependence on coal among Minnesota Power customers. Their decision to cut coal usage is a clear sign that they have their finger on the pulse of what their members want.

Minnesota Power and RPU are not the first to move away from coal, but these two are the largest groups to date to do so. Earlier this year, the city of Cologne announced that they would be the first city in the state to utilize solar energy to power 100 percent of its city buildings.  And on the Iron Range, the cities of Virginia and Hibbing have been burning timber industry waste for nearly a decade now, displacing the need for 150,000 tons of coal each year. 

Later this summer, the EPA will release its rule on power plants called the Clean Power Plan. With all of this activity currently occurring on the state level, it is clear that Minnesota’s largest energy producers and consumers are taking proactive steps to prepare for what appears likely to be a tough new standard for the future of American power. 

Hopefully these moves toward energy independence will initiate a broader conversation around the state as municipalities and energy producers alike look at what the future holds. With the price of renewable energy options like solar and wind power dropping to financially competitive levels with traditional fossil fuel sources, now is a perfect opportunity to move toward more renewable energy production options.

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