In recent months, the Star Tribune and other media outlets have been spilling a lot of ink on the impending closures of coal plants in Minnesota and across the nation. As this topic continues to generate a lot of attention, it is important that the communities on the front lines of this issue — the cities who currently host coal plants — are not overlooked in the discussion.
When I ran for mayor of Oak Park Heights, a city of about 5,000 residents located along the St. Croix River, I did not expect to find myself in the center of the global energy debate, but that is exactly where my city finds itself today.
For more than 50 years, the smokestack of the Allen S. King coal-fired power plant has towered above Oak Park Heights and provided power to the entire region. As mayor, I am proud that my city has hosted a facility that helped fuel incredible economic growth in the Twin Cities area and beyond while ensuring that the lights come on when you flip the switch at home.
Now, as our state and our nation move toward a cleaner-energy future, communities like mine are facing a monumental challenge. Last May, Xcel Energy announced a proposal to shut the King Plant down in 2028 — at least nine years prior to what was previously expected. With its closure, around 40% of Oak Park Heights’ local tax base will disappear overnight.
We aren’t the only ones going through this. The retirement of the King Plant is part of Xcel Energy’s plan to close all of its remaining coal plants by 2030, which will also have deep impacts on the city of Becker. Red Wing and Monticello host the state’s only nuclear plants and are also bracing for an uncertain future. Meanwhile, Fergus Falls will see a coal plant retire in the next few years, while plants in Cohasset and Hoyt Lakes will be considered for retirement as well. Granite Falls will lose significant tax base this year, as a former coal-burning facility is dismantled.
The impact for each of these communities is enormous. Plants often makes up 40% to 70% of the local tax base and contribute hundreds of high-wage jobs. The massive hole in our tax base and potential loss of residents will have far-reaching impacts, sending ripple effects throughout the school district, county and region, and threatening the pocketbooks of local residents and businesses who pay property taxes.
As local officials, we will do everything in our power to prepare our communities to avoid these impacts, but we can’t do it alone. One way the Legislature and governor can help support this transition is by passing the Community Energy Transition Grant Program, which is bipartisan legislation developed with the input of the communities that are on the front lines of this transition. This program would give local governments access to grants that could help fund the vital planning and economic development work we need to do to plan for our future beyond the life of the plant.
For example, in Oak Park Heights, the closure of the King Plant will require us to do significant land use and environmental planning. Our small city simply cannot undertake this expensive and complicated work without help from the state.
Energy markets are rapidly changing in ways that will benefit all of us in the long-term, but the trade-offs for that progress can be extremely local and very painful. We are grateful that Gov. Tim Walz and some state legislators have publicly acknowledged the heavy impacts that plant closures will have on local communities.
The King Plant has been a vital employer and property taxpayer in my city for 52 years. Planning for a future without the plant needs to start now. As Minnesota’s 2020 legislative session continues, I urge the Legislature and governor to help ensure the long-term viability of our communities by creating and funding the Community Energy Transition Grant Program.
Mary McComber is the mayor of Oak Park Heights and president of the Coalition of Utility Cities.