Minnesota utility regulators ordered Xcel Energy Inc. on Thursday to analyze the consequences of retiring two of its largest coal-burning power generators in 2020 or later.

The order by the Public Utilities Commission fell short of what 11 climate-change activists — including polar explorer Will Steger — requested, but it sent the state's largest utility a message that the end could be looming for the 1970s-era Sherco units 1 and 2 in Becker, Minn.

"Minnesotans sent a record 11,400 public comments to the PUC calling for a timeline to replace these dirty plants," said Steger, referring to a write-in campaign organized by climate activists.

More than 50 activists showed up at Thursday's meeting in St. Paul, including people from the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a faith community group that sees global warming as a moral issue.

Steger and others who testi­fied before the commission wanted specific marching orders for Xcel to study retiring the Sherco units in 2020 and replacing them with wind and solar power and conservation.

In a largely procedural step, the PUC said Xcel must study a range of options, including retiring or replacing the units with natural-gas-fired generators. The findings must be submitted next July with the utility's next long-range plan.

Thursday's two-hour hearing offered a glimpse at the political dimensions of shutting down the units, which supply 20 percent of the power used by the company's 1.2 million Minnesota customers. Five people, including a legislator and a Becker City Council member, urged the commission to keep the plant — and its 350 jobs — beyond 2020.

"This is economic devastation," Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said of the prospect of shuttering the units.

But Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Interfaith Power & Light, said hundreds of people in dozens of congregations are organizing to address climate change. "As people of faith, we think it is our moral responsibility," she said.

Sherco's two older units, along with a third newer one, burn three trainloads of coal per day, and the plant is the state's single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The newer unit, recently rebuilt after a 2011 accident, is not being considered for retirement.

Xcel has said that it wants to keep its options open on retiring or retaining the two older generators.

"All of our studies suggest that we need to be very thoughtful and understand … the implications," Jim Alders, Xcel's director of regulatory strategy, said Thursday.

But some commissioners suggested that Xcel needs to be thinking of post-retirement options. Commissioner Dennis O'Brien said the company should look at re-powering the units with natural gas, which emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal.

"The company needs to move forward, and move out of the limbo state of 'wait and see,' " added Commissioner Nancy Lange.

But Commissioner Betsy Wergin warned that the Sherco units are a reliable source of always-available electricity that won't easily be replaced. "That is not a small matter," Wergin said.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib