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Life extended for many of region's coal fired power plants

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More than 100 Midwestern electric utility companies are upgrading large scale coal-burning power plants to keep them generating electricity, despite environmental concern about carbon dioxide emissions and pending new greenhouse gas emissions standards from the federal government.

The Star Tribune cites the investment of Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power in its Big Stone power plant as a case in point. The facility, located 3 miles west of the Minnesota-South Dakota border, hired 225 workers to handle the $405 million retrofit to cut the plant's emissions. The number of jobs is expected to double before the job is done in 2015. When the work is finished, its 498-foot-tall smokestack will emit fewer air pollutants but carbon dioxide output won’t go down.

The newspaper said that more than 100 coal plants on the 11-state Midwest power grid have planned or are already undergoing the retrofits. Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse, Wis., is completing $318 million in upgrades at two coal power plants on the Mississippi River at Alma, Wis., and Genoa, Wis.

But the updates are seeing pushback within the industry. Maple Grove-based Great River Energy contracts to buys half the output of Dairyland’s Genoa plant but wants out of the deal, saying the plant is uneconomical and should be retired.

Utilities plan to shut down small, older coal-fired units, including a dozen in Minnesota. Xcel Energy replaced two Twin Cities coal plants with natural gas units and installed emission controls on its coal-fired plant in Oak Park Heights. The company has not determined the fate of two coal-burning units at its Sherco plant in Becker, Minn. Adding advanced controls would cost another $340 million but would not reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In June, the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to draft greenhouse gas regulations for existing power plants. The more stringent regulations, designed to address climate change, will add regulations beginning in 2015.

“Companies are making … in some cases billion-dollar decisions on these plants, and it would be unfortunate if greenhouse gas regulation down the road ends up undermining those investments,” said Eric Holdsworth, director of climate programs for a power industry trade group, told the Star Tribune.

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