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Minnesota Power plans to retire Cohasset coal plant, go carbon-free by 2050

Jan 12, 2021 12:57PM ● By Editor
The Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset, Minn., in 2011. Minnesota Power intends to shut down one unit by 2030 and convert another by 2035 as it seeks to be carbon-free by 2050. Photo: Minnesota Power 

By Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio News - January 12, 2021

Duluth-based Minnesota Power has announced a goal of delivering 100 percent carbon-free electricity to its customers by 2050. 

The state’s second-largest utility, which serves about 145,000 homes and businesses in northeastern Minnesota, announced Tuesday it would lay out its strategy for the next 15 years to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission as part of its integrated resource plan. 

Minnesota Power said it plans to reach 70 percent renewables by 2030 by adding 400 megawatts of new wind and solar generation. It also plans to stop burning coal at its last remaining coal-fired power plant in Cohasset, Minn., by 2035. 

“It's really fulfilling our commitment to the climate, our customers and our communities,” said President and CEO Bethany Owen, who called the announcement a “continuation of the journey we've been on for many years to provide increasingly cleaner energy.”

Only 10 years ago, Minnesota Power produced nearly all of its electricity from coal, a carbon-intensive fuel source and a major contributor to climate change. 

But since then, the company has closed seven of nine coal-fired generating units, while at the same time investing in wind farms and hydroelectric facilities in Canada, and to a lesser degree, solar. 

Last month Minnesota Power became the first utility in the state to announce it had reached the milestone of generating 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. 

But it’s not the first utility in Minnesota to pledge that it will reach 100 percent carbon-free electric generation by 2050. Xcel first made that commitment in December 2018, when it became the first utility in the country to do so. 

Since then, many major utilities nationwide have followed suit, as the price of renewable energy technology like wind and solar has plummeted, often leaving coal as the most expensive option. 

Currently, Minnesota Power generates about 30 percent of its electricity from its two remaining coal-fired generators at the Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset. 

The utility plans to retire the smaller of those units in 2030, and to transform the other unit to become “coal-free” 2035, although Owen didn’t specify how the utility would replace the coal. 

One option could be natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, but is still a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming. Minnesota Power has already proposed building a $700 million natural gas power plant in Superior, Wis. 

Minnesota and Wisconsin utility regulators have approved the Superior project, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the state should have conducted a review of the power plant’s environmental impacts. The state Supreme Court is weighing whether to uphold or overturn that ruling. 

Environmental groups have pushed Minnesota Power to invest in more wind and solar, rather than build another power plant that emits carbon dioxide and contributes to global climate change. 

The utility has argued natural gas is an important bridge fuel to help reach 100 percent renewables by 2050. One of the challenges the utility faces is its heavy industrial load, Owen said. 

About 64 percent of the electricity the company generates feeds the region’s six taconite mines and processing plants, as well as other large industrial customers like paper mills, that require huge amounts of electricity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Owen said she hopes the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will sign off on the utility’s plans by the end of the year. 

"To ensure that we're meeting our responsibility to our customers, and our communities and our employees, this plan lays out a thoughtful timeframe,” Owen said. “It allows the time and the technology to develop to ensure that we're doing it right."

To read the original report and see related stories, follow this link to the MPR News website.