DULUTH – Minnesota Power won praise for a commitment unveiled last month to be coal-free by 2035 and carbon-free by 2050, but environmentalists and consumer advocates are asking: Why wait so long?

"The decisions that are made now are going to impact the Northland for decades to come," said Rebecca Kling with the Sierra Club, which with other groups recently sent a letter to the utility "calling for Minnesota Power to commit to 100% clean energy as quickly as possible and in a way that provides equitable access to all the benefits of clean energy."

The Duluth-based utility said it is constrained by the limits of clean energy technology and the need to provide reliable and affordable power.

"Minnesota Power recognizes that currently, the technology does not exist to cost-effectively achieve a carbon-free system, but believes the industry will continue to make advancements in the coming years," the company wrote in its 15-year resource plan filed with state regulators this week, kicking off a public process that could shape how Minnesota Power sends electricity to homes and businesses in the coming years.

The utility is planning to close and transition its last remaining coal-fired power plants in Cohasset, Minn., by 2035 and add hundreds of megawatts of solar and wind power to replace it over the coming years. Late last year Minnesota Power announced it had reached 50% renewable energy after adding new wind and hydro power to the grid.

The company also intends to build a natural gas power plant in Superior, Wis., which it would co-own with Dairyland Power Cooperative. The $700 million plant would produce between 525 and 625 megawatts of power.

In the lengthy resource plan submitted this week, the utility assumed the plant will be operational by 2025. Opponents said the utility should offer a plan that does not include the gas plant.

"Scientists agree that time is running out to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," said JT Haines, a Duluth-based advocate with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "In other words, we don't have time for new fossil fuel infrastructure. We look forward to reviewing plans with the company … which do not include a brand-new gas plant on the customer dime."

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and is a more flexible fuel. Minnesota Power, which sells a majority of its power to a handful of mines and paper mills, said it needs the plant to ensure reliability and affordability when solar and wind power aren't available.

The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on whether the state needs to conduct a thorough environmental review for the project despite the plant being located in Wisconsin. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission regulates where utilities can purchase power from and voted 3-2 to approve the gas plant over an administrative law judge's recommendation that it be denied based on a lack of need.

Wisconsin regulators have approved several permits to date, though a key approval has been challenged in court.

If fully approved, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center gas plant would come online about the same time Minnesota Power expects the PolyMet copper/nickel mine to begin operations and start needing a tremendous amount of power.

By 2030, Minnesota Power intends to shut down the Boswell Energy Center Unit 3, a 335-megawatt coal-fired power plant. By 2035, Minnesota Power intends to transition the 468-megawatt Boswell Unit 4 off coal to another energy source.

Boswell employs about 170 people and is a major taxpayer in Itasca County.

"Minnesota Power owes it to our community to help with the transition to cleaner energy sooner rather than later," said Bill Schnell with the Itasca Clean Energy Team. "But it's going to take time for the communities to transition."

An economic impact study from the University of Colorado showed the Boswell closure could have a ripple effect for years, with hundreds of job losses in the region by 2050.

"Retirement of units 3 and 4 results in an average decrease of 434 jobs in the Itasca County economy from 2030-2050," the report said. "The retirement results in an average reduction of $139 million in local GDP and $33 million in personal income over the period."

Minnesota Power said in its filing it is committed to "creating certainty and allowing adequate time for employees and communities to adjust to a different future."

"The path to a carbon-free energy future is only sustainable if it includes a just transition for the employees and communities directly affected by energy system change, and Minnesota Power's 2021 Plan provides the time for that thoughtful transition."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496