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Another step away from coal: MN Power plans a big new natural gas plant

They also have deals to buy more wind and solar energy.

Northern Minnesotans would get more of their electricity from natural gas instead of coal under a new plan rolled out by the region's biggest utility company Wednesday.

Minnesota Power announced it wants to build a new natural gas plant in Superior, Wisconsin. The $700 million project would be a partnership with La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative with each company putting up half the cost and each getting 250 megawatts of electricity from the new plant. (Dairyland made its own announcement, as well.)

At the same time that it unveiled its natural gas plan, Minnesota Power also announced deals to buy wind and solar energy from a pair of Minnesota developments that are already in the works.

They plan to buy all 250 megawatts produced at the Nobles 2 Wind Project in southwestern Minnesota and 10 megawatts of solar from Cypress Creek Renewables in central Minnesota.

Minnesota Power says its plans for more renewable energy and more natural gas go together. Compared to a coal plant, it's easier to adjust the production from a natural gas one. That makes it a good complement to solar and wind power.

Company spokeswoman Amy Rutledge told MPR News: "Natural gas can provide critical backup to intermittent or variable renewable sources when the sun doesn't shine, and when the wind doesn't blow."

MPR says as recently as 2005 Minnesota Power got 95 percent of the electricity it sold from coal. The company says if its new plan gets approved by regulators, 44 percent of its energy will be coming from renewable sources. Minnesota Power's long-term plan is to reduce coal to one-third of its portfolio.

Why the switch?

Utility companies around the country – including Minnesota's largest, Xcel Energy – have been moving from away from coal toward natural gas, largely because its greenhouse gas emissions are a lot lower.

Minnesota has a law setting targets for reducing emissions by certain amounts by 2025 and by 2050.

Minnesota Power hopes its new plans will get approval from the state's Public Utilities Commission by the end of next year. If that happens, they say the new natural gas plant could be up and running by 2025.

While it puts less carbon in the air than coal does, burning natural gas has its own pollution hazards. Read more about those here and here.

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