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Xcel, environmentalists square off over planned gas-fired power plant

March 6, 2021

Star Tribune

Mike Hughlett

The rise of natural gas-fired power was long welcomed — or at least accepted — by both utilities and clean-energy groups. Gas vanquished coal, cutting both carbon dioxide emissions and wholesale electricity costs.

But to renewable-energy advocates, gas’ days are numbered — at least as far as building big power plants such as the one Xcel Energy is planning in Becker, Minn.

They say an emission-free combination of new wind and solar — coupled with a fleet of grid batteries for power storage — is cheaper and just as reliable as a new gas plant.

“If we want to take climate change seriously, we can’t build new fossil-fuel plants,” said Ellen Anderson, climate program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “The time has come to move on from fossil fuels.”

Not so fast, say Xcel and for that matter the utility industry: Gas will be needed for some time to ensure grid reliability, particularly as coal plants close.

“Natural gas is the right fuel to bridge us into the future and integrate renewables into the system,” said Christopher Clark, Xcel’s president for Minnesota. “This is a major transition, and it’s important to do it in a way that respects affordability and reliability.”

The debate over Xcel’s gas plant promises to get hotter this year.

The legislature and then-Gov. Mark Dayton bypassed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and approved Xcel’s roughly $800 million plant four years ago.

But the PUC still has a significant say over the gas plant as it undertakes a long-awaited review of Xcel’s long-term power generation plans.

Minneapolis-based Xcel must show the PUC that the gas plant is in the public’s — and ratepayers’ — best interest, particularly in comparison to new renewable-energy projects.

The PUC has authority, too, over whether Xcel can eventually recover the plant’s costs from its customers. Plus, Xcel’s proposed gas supply pipeline to the new plant — which is likely to cost a few hundred million dollars — must be approved by the PUC.

“We strongly feel the law doesn’t make the gas plant a done deal,” said Allen Gleckner, energy markets director for research and advocacy group Fresh Energy in St. Paul. “It is not guaranteed.”

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Author: Hannah Hoeger

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