MN Power’s natural gas plant shows changing industry

The proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center would be a $700 million, 550-megawatt power plant in Superior, Wisconsin, shared by Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Last week, Minnesota Power announced it would build a new natural gas power plant in Superior with Wisconsin-based Dairyland Power Cooperative as a partner.

From a Brooks Johnson story in the Duluth News Tribune:

“It’s really about giving customers affordable, reliable, less carbon-intensive energy,” Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power vice president of strategy and planning, told the News Tribune this week. “What we’re doing with this is bringing in flexible generation … to back us up.”

Dubbed the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, Minnesota Power will split the cost and ownership of the natural gas plant with Dairyland Power Cooperative. The 550-megawatt plant, to be located near the Calumet refinery, will employ up to 25 people long-term and require a peak of 260 construction workers while it is built.

“We scanned the entire Midwest — the Superior site is shovel-ready, with access to gas and transmission lines,” Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said. “At the highest level, this is the next step for moving from primarily coal to more than 40 percent renewables.”

So the new plant and its 25 jobs becomes one part of the story. More significant, however, is that a power company once fully dependent on coal is on track to draw 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Meantime, coal will generate less than a third of its power load as natural gas picks up a lot of the base load.

The project kicked up some political controversy last week. Minnesota Speaker of the House Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) issued a statement that Minnesota’s environmental regulations caused Minnesota Power to locate its new plant in Superior.

“Republicans want Minnesota Power made in Minnesota — not forced to relocate to Wisconsin. It’s unfortunate that once again, Democrats’ resistance to improving our regulatory process has resulted in Minnesota families losing out on hundreds of good-paying jobs and millions in private investment. One of our top priorities next session should be putting Minnesota jobs first and overhauling our regulatory process so we can protect our environment without losing major opportunities for economic growth.”

Left unsaid was the fact that MP was splitting the cost of the plant with a Wisconsin power company. This didn’t sit well with State Sen. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth), who said Daudt’s claim was false.

“Speaker Daudt is knowingly using this Minnesota Power expansion project to further his agenda that would roll back environmental regulations and worker protections. We’ve seen what has happened to our Wisconsin neighbors under the leadership of Gov. Scott Walker – and it’s not a model we should strive for. Rather than using Minnesota Power to politicize his own agenda, Speaker Daudt should have spent time learning about the real reasons behind selecting Superior, WI as the location to expand. The reasons are straightforward, safe and completely innocuous,” said Sen. Simonson.

Indeed, Minnesota Power responded in a Business North story:

“While we always support streamlining and updating the current regulatory framework, it wasn’t a determining factor that led to the siting decision,” the utility said in response to Daudt’s press release. “This project was chosen as part of a broad competitive bidding process that had submittals from around the Midwest. The Superior, Wis. site was most competitive out of all the Midwest alternatives available as it had access to multiple interstate natural gas pipelines, robust transmission and was in an already robust industrial area with strong infrastructure.”

Political opportunism aside, big truths emerge in this story. Yes, investor-owned utilities can invest in cleaner technology while remaining profitable. Yes, the model of using natural gas peaking plants and off-peak renewables can deliver reliable electrical service. And no, coal is not the future, no matter how much you deregulate it.

It’s staggering that grown-up people can watch what’s actually happening in modern industry and suggest with a straight face that “coal jobs” are coming back. All such a position can really do is inhibit technology and demand for cleaner energy to preserve coal jobs just a little longer. Even so, they’re only interfering with a conversion that’s going to happen anyway.

I know a lot of people who work for Minnesota Power or who retired from the company. They’ve been watching these changes for a long time. I hear lots of different opinions about coal. Many point out how much cleaner the new coal burners really are. Others acknowledge that coal is on the way out. But what seems most surprising is the steady improvements in our electrical grid. Companies lose much less power in the lines than they used to. Also, a reliable supply remains available even after coal-burners blinked off over the years. The old rule that we need 1,000 megawatt coal burners to keep the lights on is fading.

When you combine wind, sun and water-based electrical generation, couple them with the reliability of natural gas peaking plants, you can see that clean energy isn’t just possible, but probable — and profitable. And these industries will need workers, too.

No, we can’t shut down the big coal-burners yet. But smart companies are preparing for the day when we do.

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