The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission said Thursday that Xcel Energy must take a detailed look at the future of its largest coal-fired power plant and study how soon its two oldest units could be retired.
Xcel's Sherco plant, located near Becker, supplies enough electricity to power more than 2 million homes and businesses.
MPR News reports that the future of the Sherco plant has generated more than 10,000 public comments this year. The vast majority of those comments want the commission to put pressure on Xcel to replace Sherco's two oldest units with clean energy alternatives.
The commission said that by July Xcel should complete a study of retirement scenarios that would start in 2020.
Environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, wanted the PUC to adopt stronger language that would have required Xcel assume a 2020 retirement date for Sherco. They held community events around the state in November in an effort to increase the pressure on Xcel and state officials.
Polar explorer Will Steger was one several who testified before the PUC Thursday.
“Minnesotans sent a record 11,400 public comments to the PUC calling for a time line to replace these dirty plants,” said Steger, according to a report in the Star Tribune.
There were some who spoke in favor of keeping the plant, including Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker. Supporters cited the 350 jobs the plant provides to the area.
"It's economic devastation," Newberger said, according to the Star Tribune, when speaking of shuttering the units.
Commissioner Dennis O'Brien said the company should look at repowering the units with natural gas. It emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal.
Xcel officials did not object to the study.
Previous studies have determined that continuing to burn coal at Sherco is the most cost-effective option. Company officials did acknowledge that an earlier study on the plant found that retirement of the plant at some point could make the most financial sense, depending on the future cost of carbon dioxide emissions.