April 22, 2015
Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power held accountable for keeping the state tied to polluting, costly fossil fuels
STATEWIDE, Minn. — Tomorrow, the Sierra Club will launch an aggressive TV advertising campaign in the Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota, highlighting how utility companies like Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power are keeping the state tied to coal, an increasingly costly and polluting energy source. The ads will air multiple times a day starting Thursday, April 23, on 23 popular cable TV channels in the utilities’ service territory. Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power have 15 year energy plans due this year, and are the only independently owned utilities operating coal plants in Minnesota without detailed plans in place to transition away from burning coal.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists, every year Minnesota pays $420 million for out-of-state coal to burn for electricity in Minnesota, despite available and affordable homegrown renewable energy sources like wind and solar, a fact outlined in the TV ads.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to utilities forcing Minnesotans to pay for their dirty coal choices,” said Michelle Rosier of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Minnesota. “We’re paying an additional $2 billion each year in health and environmental costs, such as hospital visits for respiratory problems, missed school days and the impacts of climate disruption — not to mention the rate increases we’re saddled with to prop up these outdated, increasingly uneconomic coal plants.”
These ads come at a critical time when, among other things, utilities like Xcel and Minnesota Power are putting together their long term energy plans and state legislators are considering clean energy policy. Meanwhile, the majority of Minnesota voters say they would rather reduce the need for fossil fuels by expanding the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy, according to an August 2014 Statewide Voter Survey by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.* On top of this, more than 8-in-10 voters in Minnesota Power’s service territory report that “we need to fundamentally change the way we get our energy in Minnesota,” according to a Precision Poll Report.**
Despite being a utility leader on wind, Xcel Energy operates the largest polluting coal plant in the state in Sherburne County, known as Sherco. Sherco, located in Becker, Minn., is one of Minnesota’s largest sources of mercury and soot pollution. The plant also emits 14.8 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, the equivalent of 3.1 million cars on the road. Xcel is faced with deciding whether to spend millions to prop up two coal-burning units at Sherco (1 & 2) or replace coal by investing in renewable energy.
“Utilities are dragging their feet to do what Minnesotans have urged them to do for years — move away from coal,” said Rosier. “There’s only one way to power Minnesota for the long haul. Our renewable power sources like wind and solar are abundant in Minnesota. They’ll power us for the long haul and create good jobs.”
Although Minnesota has the potential to be a renewable energy leader, evidenced by a booming clean energy industry, utilities like Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power continuing to operate aging coal plants. For Minnesota Power’s part, it draws nearly 80 percent of its power from coal.
“Minnesota Power is making its customers shoulder the burden of importing coal from other states,” said Ann Miller, Duluth resident. “This sends our hard-earned dollars out of state, money that could be invested in renewable energy right here at home.”
Recently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) agreed to a timeline for revising the long-overdue air pollution permit at Minnesota Power’s Taconite Harbor coal-burning plant to meet health-based clean air protections established nearly five years ago. For Taconite Harbor, the air pollution permit was more than a decade overdue, putting nearby Northern Minnesota communities, iconic public parks, and recreation areas at risk.
A 2014 settlement between Minnesota Power and the Environmental Protection Agency over previous clean air violations requires Minnesota Power to reduce pollution at both Clay Boswell and Taconite Harbor coal plants. Air pollution modeling conducted by experts demonstrated that even with those required reductions in pollution, Minnesota Power’s Taconite Harbor coal plant is likely to result in significant violations of EPA clean air standards for sulfur dioxide pollution, if left unmitigated.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide pollution from coal plants and other sources for as little as five minutes can cause lung function impacts, asthma attacks, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Children and adults with asthma are particularly at risk for adverse health effects from short-term sulfur dioxide pollution exposure. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, northeastern Minnesota has the highest rates per capita of asthma-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations in the state.
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*Polling data referenced came from a statewide landline and wireless telephone poll of 421 randomly-selected registered Minnesota voters, conducted July 26 – August 3, 2014, for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership by the bipartisan research team of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. The margin of sampling error for the full statewide samples is 4.9 percentage points, plus or minus; margins of error for subgroups within the sample will be larger.
**Public opinion polling firm Peak Campaigns conducted a telephone opinion survey of 401 voters in the Minnesota Power service area between April 6-9, 2013. Maximum margin of error for a random sample of 401 voters is +/- 4.9%.