St. Paul's District Energy to drop coal as fuel source within 5 years


District Energy, the nonprofit utility that provides heating and cooling to several hundred buildings in downtown St. Paul, is going to phase out its use of coal over the next five years.

The move will save money and reduce air pollution in the process, CEO Ken Smith said in a news release Wednesday.

District Energy said its decision is being driven in part by simple economics: Coal is becoming more expensive than other types of fuel.

"[Coal] used to be the least-cost source," said Smith, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It's no longer the least-cost source."

Coal currently accounts for about 25 percent of District Energy's fuel sources. Natural gas is another 25 percent, and biomass – wood residuals collected throughout the Twin Cities metro from tree trimming – makes up the bulk of the rest, according to the Pioneer Press.

The company says it will replace the coal with a mix of those other sources, along with solar power and some efficiency measures, Midwest Energy News reports.

District Energy says it's also exploring some more unusual energy sources, including capturing waste heat from local sewage systems.

"It's pretty significant that District Energy is voluntarily transitioning off coal," said Anne Hunt, St. Paul's environmental policy director, according to Midwest Energy News. She said it's "a really big deal" that the company decided to eliminate coal even though it wasn't mandated to do so by law.

District Energy said eliminating coal as a fuel source will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 27 percent or 21,000 tons. That's the equivalent of removing 4,400 cars from the road each year.

District Energy heats nearly 200 buildings and 300 single-family homes, and cools more than 100 buildings, in downtown St. Paul and adjacent areas.

Xcel Energy makes similar move

District Energy's decision follows a similar one made earlier this month by Xcel Energy, which said it will shut down two coal-fired generators at its Sherco power plant in Sherburne County by 2026.

One impetus for Xcel's announcement is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan ,which requires power plants to reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

Xcel also plans to dramatically increase its investment in wind power over the next several years. It hopes to generate a third of its energy in Minnesota and the Dakotas through wind and solar by 2030, with just 15 percent from coal.

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