Regulators could decide the fate of a natural gas plant proposed for Superior this week.

During a public meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, in the Duluth City Council Chambers, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide whether Minnesota Power's proposed $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center natural gas plant is needed or in the public interest.

The Duluth-based company wants to build the $700 million plant with Dairyland Power Cooperative on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy's Superior Terminal and the Nemadji River.

Minnesota Power argues the project would support its expanding solar and wind energy production because it would provide a reliable backup source "when the wind isn't blowing and sun isn't shining."

Opponents disagree. As a decision looms, opponents of the natural gas plant gathered in a conference room in downtown Duluth's Ordean Building on Monday morning to make their case to local media that natural gas isn't a clean or renewable energy and the plant's construction would raise Minnesota Power customers' rates.

Courtney Cochran of the Sierra Club said the PUC should deny the proposal.

"This gas plant has been found that it is not needed, that it is bad for customers and could lead to rate hikes and that it is bad for the environment ... we support the strong, unbiased recommendations of the administrative law judge to deny this gas plant proposal," she said.

In July, Administrative Law Judge Jeanne M. Cochran said the project is not needed or in the public interest, and should be rejected by the PUC.

"Minnesota Power has failed to establish that approval of these affiliated interest agreements is consistent with the public interest because it has failed to demonstrate that the underlying 250 (megawatt) NTEC purchase is needed and reasonable," Cochran wrote in her non-binding recommendation.

Minnesota Power set a goal of reaching 44 percent renewable energy by 2025. The company is currently at 30 percent renewable energy.

"It really is going to position our customers and our resources to be more beneficial to our customers," said Jule Pierce, vice president of strategy and planning at Minnesota Power.

Although an exact rate increase for customers is not known, Pierce said that if the the plant was built today, it would result in a 2 percent rate increase for users.

Minnesota Power hopes to have the plant operational in 2025.

For an average monthly Minnesota Power bill of $87, that's about $1.74, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge explained.

In March, 11 Northland mining, paper and energy companies, which consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power's electricity, voiced opposition to the proposed plant because, in part, the companies argued there are cheaper ways of ensuring reliable energy.

If approved by the PUC, Minnesota Power would then move through the permitting processes and a similar regulatory process in Wisconsin, Pierce said.

If denied, Pierce said, "We'll need to go back and look at how else we can meet that (energy) need."

Superior Mayor Jim Paine has long supported the project, citing its ability to create jobs improve the tax base and generate nearly $1 million in annual stormwater fees.

Meanwhile, two Duluth city councilors, Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund, have filed letters with the PUC opposing the project.