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Long road ahead for Superior natural gas plant

Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative have proposed a $700 million natural gas power plant, called the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which would be located in Superior and provide up to 550 megawatts of power. (Image courtesy of Minnesota Power)

Brooks Johnson

Duluth News Tribune

By the time the Nemadji Trail Energy Center is sending power to the grid, Emmet Christensen will be 18 years old.

"My dad works for Minnesota Power," said the aspiring engineer, now 10. "I've been excited."

Emmet was among the dozens of people who stopped by an open house in Superior on Thursday to learn more about the natural gas power plant Minnesota Power is planning with Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Though construction on the $700 million plant won't start until 2020 at the earliest and formal permit applications won't be submitted to Wisconsin until next spring, the utilities are trying to stay ahead of what is the biggest private investment in Douglas County in recent memory.

"Anytime you're talking about building a large power plant, it's a long process," said Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge.

A few new details were unveiled at the Superior Elks Club on Thursday, including the source of the proposed 550-megawatt plant's natural gas. A new seven-mile pipeline would be built in an existing pipeline corridor to connect to a Great Lakes Gas Transmission mainline. The new pipe likely would be 10 to 16 inches in diameter.

A 10-acre site has been identified for a new substation south of the plant at County Road Z, which would be connected by four miles of 345-kilovolt transmission lines.

The Nemadji Trail Energy Center itself would sit on the banks of the Nemadji River, nestled near the Enbridge terminal's oil tank farm. It's expected to be fully operational in 2025.

That's the preferred plan, anyway — experts on hand acknowledged that the planning process is just beginning. An alternate site for the combined-cycle plant was identified closer to the oil refinery, and a substation could be located along North 42nd Street instead of farther south.

While slides and maps were getting set up in Superior, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was going through the details of Minnesota Power's power plans in St. Paul. In that audience was Leigh Currie, an environmental attorney who represents groups such as the Sierra Club that are vying to influence the process.

"A natural gas plant may not be Minnesota Power's only option," Currie wrote in an email. "The groups I represent are not necessarily opposed to this plant — if it's needed and if it's the best option — but we want Minnesota Power to have to show its work in proving that it's the right choice before its customers are saddled with an investment of this magnitude for decades to come."

Rutledge said natural gas is needed for reliability — because the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, and battery technology is far from adequate for distribution systems.

The natural gas plant is part of Minnesota Power's plans to add 250 megawatts of wind, 250 megawatts of natural gas and 10 megawatts of solar power as it continues to move away from what was almost entirely coal-based energy production as recently as 10 years ago.

Dairyland, whose member cooperatives include Bayfield Electric, is embarking on a similar plan to replace coal with cleaner fuels.