Sierra Club: Power plant must clean up

The Sierra Club says Xcel’s Sherco plant must turn to cleaner energy.

Julia Marshall

The Sierra Club is demanding that Xcel Energy retire part of a power plant on the Mississippi River.

Some environmentalists say the two coal-burning generators at Xcel’s Sherburne County power plant, built in the 1970s, are outdated. Now, the Sierra Club, an environmental organization that includes some University of Minnesota students, is asking the company to replace the generators with clean-energy alternatives.

The Sherburne County plant, or Sherco, is located about 45 miles northwest of the Twin Cities in Becker, Minn. Burning about 30,000 tons of coal every day, it’s the state’s top contributor to global warming and among the top-25 most-polluting power plants in the nation, according to advocacy group Environment Minnesota.

Environmental science and policy senior Mallory Carter, who is involved with the Sierra Club, said she’s concerned that pollution from Sherco can produce smog and aggravate health issues.

“Everyone deserves a healthy life,” she said. “Many people don’t realize the health implications of coal.”

The Sierra Club recently drafted a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission asking that it require Xcel to make plans to close Sherco’s two oldest generators and replace them with cleaner alternatives like wind and solar power.

Xcel will negotiate with the commission to decide Sherco’s future. The company is currently deciding whether to retrofit the generators with more pollution-control equipment or close them. But for now, the generators will continue to run on coal.

“Given the great uncertainty regarding future carbon regulation, we believe that it’s in the best interests of our customers to continue to operate [the two generators] as we wait for greater clarity around environmental regulation and the resulting costs to our customers,” Xcel officials said in an email statement after declining requests for an interview.

Michelle Hesterberg, a federal field associate for the Environment Minnesota Research and Policy Center, said keeping the generators running isn’t doing enough for the environment.

“Xcel Energy’s ‘wait-and-see’ approach that they’ve proposed is not adequate,” she said. “This plan laid out by Xcel just doesn’t keep our state moving forward.”

Jessica Tritsch, Sierra Club senior organizing representative, said the group asked Xcel to conduct a study comparing the cost of replacing the two oldest generators with clean-energy sources versus keeping them on coal.

When Xcel completed the study, Tritsch said, it found the costs were “very similar.”

A September report by Environment Minnesota found that the Sherco plant’s emissions in 2011 reached 13.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equal to the amount created by 2,730,000 passenger vehicles in a year.

But Xcel said in the statement that Sherco’s emissions are below the limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the company is investing $50 million in improvements for the generators to reduce the plant’s emissions.

Tritsch said moving away from coal won’t be a simple process, but prioritizing clean energy is still important.

“It’s going to be looking at the entire system and hugely increasing the amount of wind, hugely increasing the amount of solar,” Tritsch said.