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Black Dog power plant moving off coal toward cleaner energy

Courtesy of Northern States Power Co.
Black Dog’s last coal train arrived on April 8.

On April 8, the last shipment of coal was delivered to Xcel Energy’s Black Dog power plant in Burnsville, marking the end of the facility’s 60-year history of producing electricity from coal. Instead, once the coal units are replaced with a natural gas combustion turbine, all of the electricity produced at Black Dog will come from more efficient, cleaner natural gas, reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions from that plant by more than 690,000 tons a year, or the equivalent of taking 132,000 automobiles off of the road. 

Chris Clark

The end of coal operations at Black Dog is a significant marker because it reflects our state’s common interest in pursuing progressive yet sensible ways of improving the environment. It’s also one piece of a broader strategy for achieving the kind of energy future Minnesotans want and need.

The transition at Black Dog builds on Xcel Energy’s track record of creating a clean energy future for our customers. Beginning in 2005, we embarked on a similar effort that replaced two coal-powered plants – Riverside in Minneapolis and High Bridge in St. Paul – with natural gas-powered units and installed state-of-the-art emission controls at the King plant in suburban Oak Park Heights. 

Those projects produced exceptional results: Air emissions from those plants were cut by more than 90 percent, more electricity was produced for our customers’ growing needs and energy bills were held below the national average. These projects also enjoyed significant support from our customers, policymakers and a broad array of stakeholders.

15-year road map

Reducing the environmental impact of our power plants is only one part of our vision for a clean and affordable energy future. Back in January, we submitted a 15-year road map for ensuring we have the best combination of resources available to meet our customers’ needs over the long term.

Our plan calls for helping our customers save energy through industry-leading efficiency programs, more than doubling our already significant renewable resources like wind and solar, achieving nation-leading carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions and reducing all types of air emissions by dialing back the use of our coal plants. We can achieve – and exceed – the renewable and clean-energy goals that Minnesotans want with a diverse energy mix that also keeps costs reasonable and preserves the many benefits that a diverse supply portfolio provides.

While the majority of Minnesota’s energy is generated from coal, that’s not the case at Xcel Energy. Today, 54 percent of the energy supplied to our Minnesota customers is CO2-free, well above the national average of 33 percent CO2-free energy. Under our plan, by 2030, we will deliver 63 percent CO2-free energy.

And it is important to understand that we can achieve these results without taking the step of immediately shutting down our coal plants. What made sense for Black Dog, a smaller, older and less efficient plant, does not necessarily make sense for our newer and more efficient Sherco plant.

Dialing back coal-plant output gradually

Instead, we can achieve significant and dramatic carbon reductions by gradually and responsibly dialing back the output from our coal plants. This approach will allow us achieve nation-leading CO2 emission reductions in a way that ensures reliable service at the greatest value to our customers.

Because of investments made by Xcel Energy, its customers and other utilities, power plants contribute far less to air-quality concerns than more widespread sources like cars, trucks, construction equipment and wood and garbage burning, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s most recent air-quality report to the state Legislature. That’s a good thing, and one that we want to continue to build on.

So, let’s mark the passing of the last rail car of coal to one of our plants, but also celebrate our ability to pursue a clean energy future in a creative, balanced and affordable way. We have a good plan — one that positions Minnesota to be a clean-energy leader while keeping electricity reliable and affordable. We look forward to working with policymakers, community organizations, customers and others to make this plan a reality.

Chris Clark is the president of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota, an Xcel Energy company.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/16/2015 - 07:39 am.

    Goodbye, coal

    “While the majority of Minnesota’s energy is generated from coal…”

    While it is true that coal is the single largest fuel source for the electricity we use, coal is no longer the majority fuel source, strictly speaking. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 46% of Minnesota’s electricity is generated by burning coal. I have been watching that number decline during the past decade, as more wind energy is added to the grid and plants like Black Dog convert to natural gas or are retired. It’s a trend that should continue.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 04/16/2015 - 09:27 am.

    The Go Green crowd will be conflicted soon. They love the fact that plants like Black Dog are not using coal but hate fracking that allows us access to natural gas. How much wind/solar goes into the grid across Minnesota percentage wise?

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/16/2015 - 11:12 am.

      Renewable power sources

      Estimates of the % of power we get from wind energy varies (as does the amount, from day to day), but most say 16 – 19 percent of our electricity is coming from wind power. Solar is just getting started here, but it grew like crazy in 2014.

      Expect both of these to increase in the days to come, and for the percentage of coal used to make electricity to decrease.

    • Submitted by Eric Sandeen on 04/16/2015 - 04:55 pm.

      Wind % in 2014

      According to the EIA, MN generated 56,825 thousand MWh from all sources in 2014. From the same source, MN generated 9,060 thousand MWh from wind. So, about 16% in 2014.

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 04/20/2015 - 12:18 pm.

    Not so…..

    Xcel’s energy efficiency programs are very far from industry-leading. Indeed, a study of the current “Resources Plan” filing shows no commitment at all to increasing investment in efficiency.

    And if Xcel thinks burning wood and garbage causes air pollution problems–which they most definitely do!–Xcel should stop burning wood and garbage. Xcel presently burns garbage in Red Wing, Mankato, and French Island (LaCrosse).

    Wood and garbage are dirtier fuels than coal. Mainstream “enviro” interests in Minnesota should themselves clean up their acts with regard to their energy policy advocacy.

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