Xcel wants to switch Riverside plant from coal to natural gas

Stephanie Kudrle

The air around the University could be dramatically cleaner in less than a decade.

But clear air comes with a cost: higher energy bills.

Xcel Energy – Minnesota’s leading power supplier – submitted a proposal to the state Public Utilities Commission in 2002 to convert its Riverside power plant from a coal-burning plant to a natural-gas-burning plant by 2009.

The change – which would dramatically reduce emissions from the plant – is supported by environmentalists and health experts but opposed by others who claim it will make power more expensive.

“This is one of the largest pollution cleanups in the history of Minnesota,” said Justin Eibenholz, Clean Energy Now coordinator. “The effects on air quality will be huge.”

Eibenholz said Clean Energy Now has worked with the Southeast Como Neighborhood Association to support the proposal since it was introduced in 2002.

The group attended a series of public hearings Xcel Energy held throughout September and October about the possible conversion. Eibenholz said the public reacted positively to the proposal for cleaner energy.

Carl Nelson, manager for renewable energy programs at the Minnesota Project, said that by eliminating coal burning the proposal will improve public health around the University and across the state.

Currently, the Riverside plant releases several harmful gases that are small enough to be inhaled and lodged in the lungs, Nelson said.

Inhaling the gases causes a range of health problems, including increased cases of asthma attacks and bronchitis.

He also said there is evidence to show the gases contribute to premature deaths.

Nelson said the Riverside plant emits a high amount of these gases.

“In a high-population area (that) can cause a lot of problems,” he said.

In 2001, the Riverside plant generated 12,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 13,200 tons of nitrous oxide and 540 tons of particulate matter.

If the proposal is implemented, Xcel Energy representatives said the pollutants will be eliminated or greatly reduced.

Passing on the cost

Legislation passed in 2001 spurred Xcel Energy to begin looking at the proposal, said Ron Elsner, Xcel Energy manager of metro emissions reductions.

The state legislation required energy companies to examine the costs and benefits of re-powering their plants with natural gas. It also allowed Xcel to charge its customers for costs related to the changes.

Previously, Elsner said, Xcel did not consider changing to natural-gas-burning plants because its rates were frozen following a merger.

He said rates will likely increase gradually and would top at roughly $5 more per month.

Despite this, converting to natural gas might have a greater cost, said Michael Nagel, assistant director of Facilities Management.

He said there is a growing natural gas shortage and sometimes not enough natural gas to meet existing demands.

Nagel said monthly rates for natural gas will increase, and the cost will fall on consumers.

But Nelson said the switch will not increase residents’ heating bills because of a shortage.

“Eventually the supply will increase and the price will drop,” Nelson said.

Additionally, Nelson said, Xcel’s projected price increase already takes natural gas prices into consideration.

Eibenholz said the rate increases were necessary and would not dramatically affect consumers.

“This is the only way (Xcel was) willing to move forward on this,” Eibenholz said. “Most people are fine with paying the extra 10 cents a day for better health.”

Not soon enough?

Although Eibenholz said the rate increases were not an issue, he said the change will not happen soon enough.

Under the current plan, the Riverside plant will not fully switch to natural gas until 2009, which Eibenholz said is too long to wait for better health.

“The cleanup is definitely a good thing,” he said. “But the timeline makes you wonder if Xcel is really going to do this.”

Elsner said if the Public Utilities Commission approves the final project in December the changes will begin in January.

However, Xcel is improving three plants, and the Riverside plant is last, which makes progress slow.

Xcel Energy will hold two more public meetings Nov. 7 and Dec. 9 to discuss project details with residents.