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Why is Minnesota going backwards on climate change?

The last thing our state needs is a new fossil fuel plant

A rendering of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.
A rendering of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.

We shouldn’t have to drag our utilities kicking and screaming toward a sustainable energy future.

In the past two decades, Minnesota has closed or made plans to close 15 of its 16 coal-fired electrical plants – substituting clean solar and wind energy for polluting fossil fuels. But Minnesota Power, the state’s second largest utility company, is threatening to delay this shift to renewables by building a new natural gas-burning plant, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center or NTEC, to be built in Superior, Wisconsin.

At a moment when the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible, building a new fossil fuel facility is folly incarnate. Whether we’re looking at the prices consumers pay for their electricity, the health consequences of air pollution, or the impact of climate change on future generations, this plan represents a reckless step backwards.

NTEC looked like a bad idea when it was first proposed in 2017. The plant will emit more than two million tons of carbon dioxide a year – roughly the amount generated by all the cars in Minneapolis. If you add the emissions involved in extracting, processing, and transporting the gas, the total greenhouse gas bill almost doubles.

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In the past five years, the urgency to act has grown. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for cutting emissions in half by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of human-caused climate change. Governor Tim Walz is committed to making Minnesota’s electricity sector 100% carbon-free by 2040. But if Minnesota Power and its partners Dairyland Power and Basin Electric (which serve the southeast and southwest corners of Minnesota) go ahead with their blueprints, NTEC will be spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere 45 years from now.

Don’t let the word “natural” fool you. Natural gas may be better than coal, but it’s still terrible. Burning natural gas releases both carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and methane is 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. And we can’t ignore the consequences of extracting natural gas from the earth in the first place through fracking, which wastes vast quantities of water, triggers earthquakes, and can pollute the groundwater.

The chemicals in natural gas also pollute the air we breathe. Burning the fuel releases toxins, including particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, which cause asthma attacks, respiratory problems, and heart attacks.

Finally, NTEC is a bad deal financially. The power plant will cost $700 million to build – and the charge will be passed on to ratepayers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Locking in this massive investment as the cost of wind and solar power plummets threatens to turn NTEC into a “stranded asset,” one which is prematurely unprofitable thanks to changing economics, and Minnesota ratepayers will be left holding the bill.

To be sure, the state needs reliable sources of electricity. We can’t simply switch off polluting power sources tomorrow and convert our economy instantaneously to wind and solar. Minnesota Power claims NTEC is needed to fill in the gaps as the utility transitions from coal to renewables. But experts hired by four Minnesota clean energy organizations have concluded that renewable sources of power plus batteries could reliably deliver the same energy provided by NTEC at a lower cost. They reached this conclusion using Minnesota Power’s own modeling and load assumptions.

Judith Barish
Judith Barish
As renewable technology improves and the need for it deepens, NTEC looks increasingly like a dinosaur.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to stop this step backwards. The Public Utilities Commission is currently holding a public comment period in which Minnesota residents can share their thoughts about the utility’s proposed 15-year resource plan. The Commission has the authority to approve or deny actions by power companies. With a loud enough public outcry, they can call a halt to the NTEC proposal.

As a nation, we should have begun reducing our climate-changing gases decades ago. As a state, it’s madness to sink hundreds of millions of dollars in an investment that increases the cost of power, pollutes the air we breathe, and locks in greenhouse gas emissions for a generation or more. As residents of planet Earth, it’s time to move forward to a clean-energy future.

Judith Barish is a writer who has been working with Minnesota organizations for over a decade. She is currently a student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.