Utilities commission orders Xcel to assess coal use

The company will look into the financial viability of continuing to operate Sherco 1 and 2.

Hailey Colwell

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered Xcel Energy on Thursday to submit a coal replacement study for Minnesota’s largest coal-burning power plant, Sherburne County Generating Station.

Due July 1, the replacement study will examine whether it’s financially viable to continue to operate the units, known as Sherco, with added pollution control or to explore renewable
alternatives.

The decision follows last week’s public hearing over Xcel’s proposed integrated resource plan, which outlines the company’s energy service goals from 2011 to 2025. Commission members heard public speakers from environmental organizations and other institutions who argued that the company could do more to establish renewable energy goals.

Among the speakers was University of Minnesota senior Phillip Kelly, who addressed the commission as a representative of the student group Campus Beyond Coal and the general student body.

He said though the student group’s demands for 5,000 megawatts of wind energy, 1,000 megawatts of solar energy and a 2 percent energy savings goal were not met, he is glad Xcel will consider renewable energy in evaluating the future of the Sherco units.

“I’m excited that the PUC recognized that both the people of Minnesota and the campus community, more specifically, do care about the future of our base energy portfolio.”

James Alders, director of regulatory administration for Xcel, said the order to perform the coal replacement study “wasn’t a surprise,” as it had been part of the company’s plans as early as 2010.

“One of the parts of our plan was to continue and increase the work that we’re doing to investigate whether the plant should continue to operate or what the alternatives might be,” Alders said.

He said the company’s next steps will be to examine the investments it would take to keep the Sherco plant operating beyond the end of its economic life in 2023.

“We’re investigating what alternatives might be available should we choose to not operate the plant beyond its current life,” he said.

They’ll also estimate the environmental impact of continuing to operate the plant compared to alternatives.

Former Campus Beyond Coal President Siri Simons spoke before last week’s hearing. She said the decision was “a great first step” for the company toward implementing more renewable energy into its plan.

“Xcel actually is a leader, I would say, in sustainability and in considering the environment in the work that it does,” Simons said. “So I feel confident that they will put a lot of thought into their analysis.”

She said being present at the hearing showed her how community members can influence environmental decisions around them.

“This hearing was a really great example of how interested ratepayers who are keeping tabs on what’s going on with Xcel are really able to have a voice in their energy system,” she said.

She said staying current with the company’s planning applies particularly to University students because the bulk of the University’s energy comes from Xcel.

“As students who pay tuition, it’s really important to be keeping in touch with how our university is powered.”