Minnesota Power to retire coal plants, sets goal of being carbon-free by 2050

It will retire and convert its remaining two coal plants by 2035.
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Minnesota Power aims to provide 100% carbon-free electricity to its customer by 2050.

The Duluth-based company announced the goal in a news release on Tuesday, saying it also hopes to deliver 70% renewable energy to customers by 2030 and be 80% carbon-free by 2035. 

This comes a month after Minnesota Power said it is now delivering 50% renewable energy to customers, becoming the first Minnesota to do so.

“As a clean energy leader, we are meeting the challenge of climate change with a reliable energy supply while keeping costs affordable for customers in this region," ALLETE President and CEO Bethany Owen (ALLETE owns Minnesota Power) said in the release.

The utility company currently uses a mix of wind, water, coal and biomass to generate power for customers. About 30% of Minnesota Power's electricity comes from its two remaining coal-fired generators at its Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset, MPR News notes

Minnesota Power says it plans to add 400 megawatts of new wind and solar generation to help it meet its 70% renewable by 2030 goal. 

And by 2035, Minnesota Power says it'll achieve a coal-free energy supply. A decade ago, nearly all of the electricity Minnesota Power produced came from coal, but it has since retired or idled seven of its nine coal-fired generators and has added nearly 900 megawatts of renewable energy sources.

To reach the 2035 goal, Minnesota Power says it'll retire one of the units at its Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset by 2030 and convert its largest unit (Unit 4) at the plant to be coal-free by 2035. 

The utility company hasn't said how exactly it'll replace the energy it gets from coal, a major contributor to climate change, but Minnesota Power will lay out the next 15 years of expected energy demands and sources in an integrated resource plan (IRP) that will be submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 1.

The Duluth News Tribune says it's likely Unit 4 will be converted to burn biomass, natural gas, hydrogen or a different carbon-free fuel.

“For Minnesota Power, this plan is about more than achieving the most significant sustainability goal in our long history – it is about becoming 100% carbon-free the right way,” Owen said in a statement. “Our diverse customer base relies on us to continue to provide reliable and affordable energy."

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Minnesota Power has proposed building a natural gas power plant in Superior, Wisconsin, but the Minnesota Supreme Court is considering whether regulators in Minnesota should have considered the project's environmental impact prior to approving it, the Duluth News Tribune reported in October

That plant is still in the company's plans, the News Tribune said. 

Natural gas gives off less carbon dioxide than coal, so it can be considered cleaner, but it still contributes to climate change by releasing methane, another greenhouse gas. That's why environmentalists want Minnesota Power to move away from all fossil fuels and focus more on wind and solar.

After submitting the IRP, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will go through the required regulatory process, which includes getting public input. A final decision on Minnesota Power's IRP is expected later this year, the release said.

Minnesota Power is the state's second-largest utility, providing electric service to a 26,000-square-mile area in northeastern Minnesota, which includes 145,000 customers, 15 cities and large industrial customers.

Xcel Energy – Minnesota's largest utility company – was the first major utility in the country to pledge to be carbon-free by 2050 when it made the announcement in 2018. Xcel has also said it will reduce its carbon emissions by more than 80% of 2005 levels by 2030.

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