Xcel responds to local groups’ coal-burning plant concerns

Some groups said they have worried about the coal- burning Riverside plant’s emissions for a long time.

Emily Johns

Because of pressure from neighborhood and environmental groups and various state agencies, Xcel Energy announced plans to convert its Riverside power plant from a coal-burning plant to a natural gas plant.

The Riverside plant, located on Marshall Street in northeast Minneapolis, was originally built in the early 1900s. It was the first power plant in Minneapolis supplying power to a large population center, according to Carl Nelson, the Minnesota Project program manager, a nonprofit environmental policy group.

Because the plant is so old, it is more harmful to the environment than any modern coal plant would be, Nelson said.

“The plant is made up of very old technology, before global warming was even a part of the picture,” Nelson said.

The Minneapolis City Council approved a resolution Jan. 15 encouraging the Public Utilities Commission to approve Xcel Energy’s Metro Emissions Reduction Project. The St. Paul City Council is expected to approve a similar resolution at their meeting Wednesday, said Justin Eibenholzl, the Southeast Como Improvement Association’s environmental coordinator.

The conversion, scheduled to begin in 2007 and finish by 2009, includes installing pollution controls at the coal-burning King plant in Oak Park Heights, Minn., and converting the High Bridge plant in St. Paul and the Riverside plant to natural gas.

Some neighborhood groups near campus, including the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said they have been worried about the emissions from the Riverside plant for a long time.

The health risks from coal-burning plants are great, Eibenholzl said. He said the Riverside plant emits approximately 100 pounds of mercury per year – the equivalent of 44,500 mercury thermometers.

Nelson, who was hired by the city to study the Riverside plant’s health effects, said mercury is a health risk because it finds its way into Minnesota’s lakes and water supply. People who consume fish from these lakes can get mercury poisoning.

Health problems from coal-burning plants can also be attributed to the release of particulates – fine particles of soot – which can enter the small parts of lungs and cause asthma, respiratory defects and premature death, Nelson said.

The Southeast Como Improvement Association pressured the company by attending public meetings held by Xcel Energy, putting up lawn signs and sending letters to the company when its federal air permit came up for renewal in 2001.

When informed of Xcel Energy’s plan, the Southeast Como Improvement Association was happy but reserved, Eibenholzl said.

“We basically think the proposal is pretty good, but the timeline for Riverside leaves it burning coal until 2009 – we think that’s unacceptable,” Eibenholzl said.

The public comment period about Xcel’s plan will end Feb. 21, according to Xcel Energy spokesman Paul Adelmann.

Xcel Energy’s motivation for the $1 billion proposal is twofold. Not only will the conversion to natural gas be good for the environment, but it will also increase power output, which is important for the growing metro area, Adelmann said.

“We won’t end up with a shortage like they had in California – we’re going to realize some gains in output,” he said.

The conversions and refurbishing of the plants will happen gradually, one plant at a time, over the two-year process in order to ensure a good supply of electricity.

“We have to stage this thing very carefully – we can’t be without more than one plant at a time,” Adelmann said.

Nelson said he believes Xcel Energy’s decision was inevitable because lawmakers will pass more regulations on emissions from older plants in coming years.

“It’s only a matter of time before they are required to clean up their act, and Xcel knows that,” he said.

Emily Johns welcomes comments at [email protected]