PUC puts Minnesota Power on notice: Coal plants too risky for customers


St. Paul, MN — Today, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided to delay a decision on the future of Minnesota Power’s oldest coal-fired power plants for at least a year, following months of public input and official filings. The PUC also sent a clear message that continuing to operate these plants past 2016 is not in the public interest based on economic cost.

Despite overwhelming evidence and broad public support for replacing these aging coal plants with cheaper, cleaner power sources, the PUC failed to decide today to take action to keep costs down for Minnesota Power’s customers. Instead, the PUC voted 5-0 to require the northeastern Minnesota power company to accelerate its next Integrated Resource Planning filing to March 1, 2013, and to include in that filing a proposal to address the viability of Laskin Energy Center and Taconite Harbor 3. The PUC also voted to condense the comment period for that filing, in order to reach a resource plan conclusion in a shorter timeframe, possibly by next summer.

In a move to hold Minnesota Power accountable and put the company on notice of the need to pull back from coal, the Commission did vote 3-2 to support the motion to protect customers if these aging plants continue operating: “On the basis of the facts as we now understand them it’s our intention that the costs of operating Laskin 1 and 2 and Taconite Harbor 3 after 2016 may be borne by the Company and not the ratepayers.”

“Although we were disappointed with the delay, the Commission sent a clear message to Minnesota Power that continuing to operate old, inefficient and dirty coal plants puts Minnesota customers at risk. Now we need a clear plan from Minnesota Power to replace these coal plants with clean energy,” said Jessica Tatro, organizing representative with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign.

Prior to this hearing, the PUC had required Minnesota Power to prepare a “continue-to-operate and a shut down cost analysis” for two old, coal-fired power facilities (Laskin and Taconite Harbor), including specific plans for shutting down those plants in the near future. The Minnesota Department of Commerce (DOC) recommended in early 2011 that Minnesota Power conduct this study, based on the DOC’s analysis demonstrating that retiring one or more baseload coal facilities would be the lowest cost alternative for customers. DOC was also concerned that Minnesota Power, with an electricity generation portfolio that was heavy on old coal units, had not examined any future in which any coal units were retired. 

Scott Strand, executive director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, summarized, “Minnesota Power is not special. It is an electric utility like any other business that must change with the times, modernize, and get more efficient to be competitive.”

The facilities under discussion include 110 megawatts at the Laskin plant near Hoyt Lakes (built in 1953) and 75 megawatts at the Taconite Harbor plant in Schroeder (built in 1967). Both the Minnesota Department of Commerce and conservation and environmental organizations stated that there is enough economic justification before the Commission to find that the aging coal units at Laskin 1 and 2 and Taconite Harbor 3 are no longer cost-effective to operate and that keeping them running is too expensive for customers—both economically and in terms of health and environmental impacts.

Over 300 Minnesota Power customers like James Hietala, a Duluth resident and electrical engineer, submitted comments calling on the PUC to require Minnesota Power to develop a plan and timeline to retire their coal plants and replace them, to the extent possible, with clean energy and energy efficiency. He says of today’s decision, “After over 50 years of operation, the time has arrived for retiring these plants. A clear plan for clean energy can’t wait; the health and economy of Northeastern Minnesota depends on it.” 

“The PUC’s delay means that Minnesota Power customers will not see timely reductions in exposure to the extremely damaging pollution from burning so much coal,” said Fresh Energy science policy director J. Drake Hamilton. Bishop Thomas Aitkin, who leads the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, said, “Knowing this transition will take time means that it is all the more important to start planning now for our clean energy future. Plants built 60 years ago are now dinosaurs in light of today’s technological advances and will require both the wisdom and will to put that wisdom to use to protect human health. Our church supports an orderly transition to cleaner energy.”

The Commission has required a similar cost-comparison study for some coal plants in the portfolios of Otter Tail Power and Interstate Power and Light. Those studies are expected to be filed for PUC consideration by the end of 2012.

The PUC also specified that Minnesota Power—in its March 1, 2013 resource plan filing—must examine scenarios for adding 200 megawatts of wind capacity as well as scenarios for adding 400 to 600 megawatts of natural gas capacity in the 2014 to 2016 timeframe.


Sierra Club Applauds Public Health Victory in Rochester as Silver Lake Moves Beyond Coal

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sierra Club Applauds Public Health Victory in Rochester as Silver Lake Moves Beyond Coal

ROCHESTER, MN – In a victory for clean energy and clean air, Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) announced plans today to retire the dirty Silver Lake coal plant by the end of 2015. The plant’s retirement is a major victory for Minnesota’s economy and public health, as reducing the number of coal-fired power plants will both curb harmful emissions and pave the way for clean air and clean jobs in Rochester. The RPU’s decision to retire the Silver Lake facility comes as the plant faces pressure for putting soot and mercury into Rochester’s air and failing to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air health safeguards.

“This is part of a trend of victories for health and a clean energy future,” said Ray Schmitz, Rochester resident and Sierra Club member since 1972. “Dirty, old coal-fired power plants are no longer able to meet clean air safeguards and compete with clean energy sources like wind and energy efficiency.”

“As a community leader I care about the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of our community,” said Michael Wojcik, RPU board member. “This is a rare decision that can improve all three of these legs of sustainability. It is important to the health and financial well-being of Rochester families that the Rochester Public Utilities board makes the correct decisions for this facility.”

RPU’s Silver Lake facility is the latest in a string of 114 coal plants across the country to opt out of coal burning due to higher fuel costs and stronger health safeguards. Last year, Xcel Energy announced plans to stop burning coal at its Black Dog plant in Burnsville, MN and converted both its metro area coal plants – Minneapolis’s Riverside and St. Paul’s High Bridge – to natural gas in 2009. Dairyland Electric Coop announced retirements of three coal plants along the Mississippi River last month.

The cost to purchase coal to burn at Silver Lake is almost double Rochester Public Utility’s anticipated prices ($4.62 per mmBtu vs. $2.35 per mmBtu). The Silver Lake facility’s boilers have not been able to compete with natural gas and wind on the energy market and operated only 257 hours in 2011, compared to 16,665 hours in 2005. Despite its decreasing operation, the Silver Lake facility emitted dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide into the air in Rochester, putting residents at risk of asthma attacks, severe respiratory problems, lung disease and heart complications.

“This is very exciting news for Rochester families,” said Dr. Barbara Yawn, MD MSc, asthma expert and family physician at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester. “The decision to decommission the Silver Lake power plant meets both the health and economic needs of those living in and around our community.”

RPU faces less demand for energy than originally forecasted in part due to energy efficiency and conservation programs cutting more than 45 megawatts of projected energy needed over the past decade – the equivalent of the capacity at Silver Lake’s #4 coal boiler. 

RPU will need to plan for new energy supply by 2030. Communities like San Antonio, TX are already demonstrating how smart investments can save ratepayers money while providing them with clean energy. CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal electric company, recently announced plans to build 400 MW of solar, and many utilities are considering expanding solar investments as the price of solar drops every year.

Coordinated Attacks on Clean Energy Hits Wind Energy Industry


August 2, 2012

Coordinated Attacks on Clean Energy Hits Wind Energy Industry


New “Clean Energy Under Siege” Report Follows the Money Trail behind the Attack on Clean Energy

Minneapolis – Over the past decade, the fossil fuel industry and its well-funded backers have mounted a coordinated campaign to discredit renewable energy and hinder its growth, according to a new report released today by the Sierra Club.

The misinformation campaign highlighted in the report is currently evident in the struggle to renew the wind energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy. The wind energy PTC helps support the more than 75,000 jobs in the wind industry, but if the tax credit is not renewed before the end of this year, as many as half those jobs could be lost. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs in Minnesota support wind energy.

“Through tactics ranging from contributions to lawmakers to faux ‘think-tanks’ and industry-backed front groups, this concerted campaign to undermine clean energy is destroying jobs, dirtying our air, and leaving America in the dust in terms of energy innovation,” said Margaret Levin, State Director, Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

According to Sierra Club’s new report, Clean Energy Under Siege, the fossil fuel industry is not only waging an attack on renewable energy in the political sphere through immense financial contributions to elected officials, but they are also funding a concerted, covert misinformation campaign. Through faux “think tanks,” phony intellectuals, and industry-backed front groups masquerading as “concerned citizens,” the industry is seeking to shift public opinion and discredit renewable energy.

The report follows the trail of money from big polluters, including how the oil and gas industry spent more than $146 million on lobbying alone in 2011, while big oil tycoons David and Charles Koch gave at least $85 million to 85 right-wing “think tanks” and advocacy groups over the past decade and a half. Rather than providing the public with education for the greater good, faux “think tanks”, like Manhattan Institute and the Heartland Institute, masquerade as “pro-free market” organizations; yet, they defend oil subsidies and attack renewable energy support. The organizations are funded by fossil fuel companies like Exxon, which has contributed more than $600,000 since 1998 to the Manhattan Institute and approximately $676,500 since 1998 to the Heartland Institute.

“This coordinated attack on clean energy in America threatens our business which offers opportunities for low to moderate income people to build wealth through clean energy investments,” said Bukata Hayes, co-founder of Sovereign Systems LLC.

“Minnesota’s congressional delegation should not be swayed by the fossil fuel industry and falsities, they should stand up for wind energy jobs in Minnesota and show their support for clean energy by voting to renew the Production Tax Credit for wind now,” added Reggie Edwards, co-founder of Sovereign Systems LLC.

To read the report Clean Energy Under Siege visit http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/downloads/SierraClubCleanEnergyUnderSiege.pdf