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Xcel Energy says it plans to retire 2 of its 3 coal-fired units at Sherco power plant


MINNEAPOLIS — Xcel Energy announced plans Friday to retire two of the three units at its huge Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, the largest power plant in Minnesota, as part of a strategy to cut its carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030.

Sherco's two oldest units would shut down in 2023 and 2026. Other components of the proposal filed Friday with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission include more wind and solar energy so that in five years, 28 percent of Xcel's energy mix could come from renewable sources, rising to 35 percent by 2030. And the company said its upper Midwest system would deliver 63 percent carbon-free energy by 2030.

The plan also calls for continuing to operate Xcel's Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear plants and developing new natural gas generation in the region, including at Sherco and in North Dakota.

"Today's proposal provides the clean energy our customers want, as well as the cost-effective transition our customers need," Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy-Minnesota, said in a statement. "By allowing adequate time to transition our workforce and the communities we serve, we can meet their needs and lead the way in delivering carbon free energy."

The PUC would have to approve the plan, which is normally a lengthy process. Gov. Mark Dayton said the proposal "will be fully reviewed by state regulators, and subject to rigorous public comment and consideration." The Dayton administration had previously proposed converting one unit to natural gas by 2025.

"We look forward to a robust discussion," Xcel said in its filing.

Environmental groups welcomed the announcement as vindication of their assertions that a clean energy path — including retirement of the two Sherco units — is the lowest-cost option for Minnesota. They said clean air organizations will be working at the PUC to ensure that Xcel sticks to its proposed timelines.

Just one day earlier, the Sierra Club filed more than 11,000 comments from Minnesota residents with the PUC, calling for retiring the units by 2021 and 2024 and switching toward wind and solar. While the group said Xcel has made great strides in transitioning to clean, renewable energy, it also said Sherco remains one of the most significant polluters in Minnesota, especially for carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change, particulates that exacerbate asthma and mercury that contaminates lakes and rivers.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican and chairman of a House job growth and energy affordability committee, said the cost will be high with little benefit.

"The real problem is Minnesotans have paid billions of dollars to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Now we're being forced to pay for it a second time," Garofalo said." Despite the evidence showing that Minnesota's carbon dioxide emissions make zero change to the planet worldwide, this is going to force us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make no difference to the world's climate."

But DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said the timeline gives the state plenty of time to retrain Sherco employees to ensure they find jobs in clean energy or other work. She said Xcel told lawmakers that a third of Sherco's employees are at or nearing retirement age.

Rep. Jim Newberger, a Republican from Becker, said Xcel told him the shutdowns will eliminate about 150 full-time jobs, many by attrition and retirements, and that some of the affected employees will get other jobs within the company.

"However, the fact remains that these 150 jobs will not be replaced with new workers as they would be if the plant were to continue its normal operation," Newberger said. "That means 150 fewer good-paying job opportunities for families in our area. The economic impact will be a staggering blow to central Minnesota."

Potter reported from St. Paul.

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