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It’s time to plan for retiring the remaining coal-burning units at Sherco

REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
Burning coal drives the worst of Minnesota’s carbon pollution.

Hello, my name is Stephanie and I am an asthmatic.

Stephanie Spitzer

Imagine sitting in your cubicle, diligently working, when your boss comes up to ask you a question. You catch a whiff of perfume, and suddenly your breath catches in your throat. You start breathing shallowly, hoping to stop the onslaught of painful, racking coughs that occur when you’re trying to catch your breath. Your boss leaves, you take your quick-acting inhaler, and you spend the next two hours breathing as slowly and as steadily as you can to recover from a minute or two of exposure.

In December, the Twin Cities had a string of bad air quality days. These triggered the worst period of asthma that I’ve ever had. Every day, I struggled to breathe with my daily medications, the same ones that work very well for most people. I took a lot of fast-acting inhalers. I couldn’t walk to my third-floor apartment without breathing hard. My doctor and I couldn’t get my breathing back under control with the most common hard-hitting medications, so in February she sent me on to an asthma specialist. Now I take four (costly) medications morning and night just to get well enough to go about my life. All due to bad air quality days at the wrong time of year.

Here in Minnesota, the majority of our electricity still comes from burning coal, an increasingly expensive way to power our lives, causing bad air quality days like the ones that triggered my asthma. On March 16, Xcel Energy, the electric utility behind the largest polluter in the state, the Sherco plant in Sherburne County, filed its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) of how it will operate for the next 10 to 15 years. Despite people urging Xcel to plan Sherco’s retirement for the last five years, it plans to continue to operate the plant indefinitely. For me and for all Minnesotans who deserve clean air, I urge Xcel to update its plan to transition away from the coal that makes us sick.

The Sherco coal plant is a blight on the map of Minnesota. Data-mapping by the Clean Air Task Force shows Sherco as a big, black dot, marked by deeply troubling statistics. The plant contributes to 90 deaths, 1,600 asthma attacks, and 150 heart attacks a year, 2011 data shows, the most recent year when all current units were operational. How can Xcel Energy be “Responsible by Nature” with statistics like these?

Burning coal at Sherco drives the worst of Minnesota’s carbon pollution, a main contributor to climate disruption and extreme weather. But rather than creating a transition plan for Sherco, Xcel continues to dig in its heels by operating this outdated plant.  We know that soon Sherco will not be able to keep up with new pollution safeguards. We know that costly retrofits for old technology are wasteful and irresponsible. We know that cleaner, cheaper energy options are available. We know that people like me with asthma don’t suffer health impacts from wind turbines or solar panels. We know that we don’t have to pay to import rays from the sun or the wind, like we do with coal. Renewable energy saves our lungs and our pocketbooks. So why does Xcel keep pouring more money into Sherco when there are lower-cost (not to mention healthier) options for the long term?

And these aren’t the only impacts to consider. The local economy is also important. Its longtime presence in the community means Xcel should responsibly plan to help the people of Becker transition to a life beyond coal.

It’s time to choose the brighter, more responsible future. It’s time to plan to retire the remaining coal-burning units at Sherco, to show that we care about the people in our present and in our future.

It’s time to show that we care about the effects of coal pollution and decide that we’re done breathing unsafe air.

Stephanie Spitzer is a knitter, volunteer and member of the Sierra Club, and asthmatic shuffling around Minneapolis with her mouth covered against the cold in winter.


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 03/27/2015 - 04:17 pm.

    Thank you, Stephanie

    For sharing your story and for showing just how little sense it makes for us to keep relying on coal in Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Bruce Snyder on 03/27/2015 - 04:24 pm.

    coal and health

    This article underscores the importance of continuing our transition away from fossil fuels to preserve our health. Coal burning power plants are responsible for most of the soot, mercury, arsenic and other toxins released into our air. Xcel should submit a transition plan to close these plants.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/27/2015 - 05:32 pm.


    That they just invested a zillion dollars in upgrades to at least two of the plants, it is unlikely that those plants will be shut down anytime soon. They are free to plan on shutting down the plants, just as they plan on when other reliable sources of electricity can replace those plants.

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 03/28/2015 - 03:12 pm.

      Sherco upgraded Unit 3

      Sherco has three turbines, known as Units 1, 2 and 3. They just upgraded Unit 3, the largest one, with a cost overrun of $200 million after the new turbine they installed failed and had to be replaced. Units 1 and 2 are both over 40 years old and should be retired.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/28/2015 - 04:01 pm.

        “over 40 years old and should be retired”

        I would say the same thing about the Congress and our State Legislature but as Indiana Jones once said: “It’s not the years, but the mileage.”

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 03/27/2015 - 06:05 pm.

    When you say contributes to 90 deaths, 150 heart attacks what do you mean and how is that calculated? I’ve had solar panels on my house off and on since 1986 with marginal success. I added a wind turbine 8 yrs ago and that helps in Oct-March when sun angle and clouds take solar in North Minn down to nearly nothing for days at a time.
    At this point solar/wind just doesn’t work as good or is as dependable as coal plants. Some day I believe it will but until it does folks need affordable electricity and power.

    • Submitted by Ed Kohler on 03/27/2015 - 11:14 pm.


      Joe, I’ve never heard of someone having panels on their house off and on before. It’s hard to believe that someone would do that, considering how panels work. It also seems strange to hear that wind only helps in the fall, since it seems like the wind blows year round in MN.

      Do have have WiFi in coal mines these days?

  5. Submitted by Brian Kirkham on 03/28/2015 - 08:07 am.

    Sherco plant

    Who would have thought a member of the Sierra Club writing an anti coal plant article. 90 people died related to the plant??? I didn’t know the plant had that many accidents there that its workers were dying at the plant. 115 heart attacks related to Sherco? How do we know that? Do we know if they smoked? Did these people have heart disease?

    You also mention burning coal is increasingly expensive way to power our homes. Did you know out of coal, nuclear, wind, hydro, sun, and natural gas that coal is the cheapest form of energy? I have heard that directly from energy experts with 30 plus years of experience.

    Scientists in 2012 at Ohio State University came up with a way to heat coal without burning it which doesn’t release bad pollutants. Clean coal technology is out there and advancing. With our neighbors in North Dakota who have enough coal to supply America for estimated 700 years I think we give scientists and engineers a chance with clean coal technology.

    • Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 03/30/2015 - 02:01 pm.


      One reason coal is so cheap? The owners give it away to mining companies for almost nothing.

      Also, show us where your expert’s calculations include the costs of air pollution, direct and indirect, and the costs of waste disposal and environmental cleanup of coal tar and fly ash, damage to private property and human health.

      If those costs are not counted then that accounting is incomplete and dishonest.

      How much are the West Virginia mountains worth after leveling?

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 03/28/2015 - 09:25 am.

    Solar panels attach to your roof by brackets with 6 screws, to remove them it takes 1/2 hour. I took my original panels and moved them to my deer camp in 90’s. I wasn’t happy with how they performed running lights, washer/dryer in my basement. You have to store energy produced by panels in batteries then convert it to household use. Had problems with batteries, froze because they emit gases and have to be stored outside and in Oct-March there wasn’t enough sun to charge batteries daily. Tried again in 2004 with 3 new panels and a turbine to run off-peak water heater and part of my basement. Yes, the wind blows in April-Sept but when batteries are full they shut down intake of energy, so turbine doesn’t help much in those months because panels charge batteries during day. During Oct-March turbine alone didn’t charge batteries daily. Again moderate success.
    Ed, did all the work myself so I do have a bit of knowledge about the subject.

  7. Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 03/30/2015 - 06:34 pm.

    Money from your electric bill goes toward….

    The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) is the lobbying group for most investor owned utiliry companies, Exel and Minnesota Power included. EEI is partnering with the Koch brothers American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push for anti solar legislation/regulation at the state level as well as national. When our Minnesota republican legislators (there are 24 ALEC members) show up at ALEC meetings, they will be wined and dined and promised money for their campaigns in return for fighting for the fossil fuel/power utility agenda. Laws and regulations against homeowner solar are in the process of going forward or have already passed in some republican states, recently in Wisconsin, where of course Scott Walker declared it a great day for freedom!.

  8. Submitted by Bibi Wald on 04/11/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Thanks, Stephanie!

    This is a very well thought-out and well researched article. Thank you for using your voice, gifts, and energy so creatively and passionately to improve and enrich your own life, and more importantly, the lives of so many. I have two little boys in Minneapolis who I desire to share this earth with but hopefully better than I found it; therefore, thank you, Stephanie!

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