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PUC approves Minnesota Power’s planned natural-gas plant

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

Minnesota regulators voted in favor of Minnesota Power’s proposed $700 million natural gas plant in Superior.

At a meeting in St. Paul Monday afternoon, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 to approve Minnesota Power’s proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a 550-megawatt plant the Duluth-based utility company plans to build with La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy's Superior terminal and the Nemadji River.

Even with the PUC’s thumbs up, the project will still need to be reviewed by Wisconsin regulators, but Minnesota Power hopes to have the plant operational by 2025.

“We are very pleased with today’s outcome, this is a significant milestone for the project and the Commission’s decision is an affirmation of our Energy Forward strategy,” Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said in a statement Monday afternoon.

The company and supporters argue 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" and help the company reach a 44 percent renewable energy goal by 2025. The company said it is currently at 30 percent.

Opponents argue the project is not needed, is costly and contributes to climate change with the extraction and burning of natural gas.

"We’re disappointed that three commissioners failed to recognize that this proposal is not in the public interest and is not needed to serve customers. There are much better investments to make in our future energy system than an investment in another large fossil fuel plant,” Leigh Currie, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy representing various clean-energy organizations, said in a statement Monday afternoon.

PUC Chair Nancy Lange, who voted in support of the project with commissioners John Tuma and Dan Lipschultz, argued the plant was needed while commissioners Katie Sieben and Matt Schuerger, who both voted no, echoed an opinion made by Administrative Law Judge Jeanne M. Cochran who in July said the project was not needed or in the public interest, and should be rejected by the PUC.

“I believe the petitioner has not met the burden to prove that their position is in the public's best interest,” said Sieben, who agreed with Schuerger that Minnesota Power’s models were biased to showing the natural-gas plant is needed.

“Should a carbon-emitting plant be approved, it should lower rates, be shown to be needed for reliability and displace a higher carbon fuel source. This is not the case here,” Sieben said.

If the plant was built today, it would increase rates by 2 percent, according to Minnesota Power officials. For an average monthly Minnesota Power bill of $87, that's about $1.74.

But for 11 Northland mining, paper and energy companies, which consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power's electricity, a potential rate increase is cause for concern and the group of businesses has long opposed the project.

Earlier in the meeting, the PUC denied a last-minute petition calling for an environmental review of the natural-gas plant.

The PUC voted 5-0 to deny a petition by Honor the Earth, a Native American-led environmental group, requesting an environmental assessment worksheet studying the environmental impacts of the plant, planned for Superior, on neighboring Minnesota.

Honor the Earth argued the plant’s environmental consequences for neighboring Minnesota should also be studied.

Before making a motion to deny the petition, Lipschultz said the PUC did not have authority over projects in other states.

“Our authority as the Minnesota regulatory agency stops at the border,” Lipschultz said.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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