Environmental groups filed a petition Wednesday asking Minnesota regulators to reconsider their approval of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a proposed 525-megawatt natural gas plant in Superior, Wis. The plant would be jointly owned by La Crosse-based Dairyland Power and South Shore Energy, a subsidiary of Minnesota Power.
“We’re looking at this from whether it’s good for Minnesota customers, Minnesota’s energy needs, and for climate change,” said Aaron Klemz, director of public engagement at Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the petitioners. “And we believe on all three measures, it fails.”
Clean Grid Alliance, Fresh Energy, Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists are also listed on the petition.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved Dairyland and Minnesota Power’s request to build the $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center in a 3-2 decision in October, against the recommendations of a Minnesota judge, environmental groups, consumer advocates, and industry groups. The companies submitted their application to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for review in January.
In July, a Minnesota judge recommended that the Minnesota utility commission not approve the project. Minnesota Power failed to show that the natural gas plant was necessary and reasonable, the judge ruled. The commission also did not give enough consideration to alternative energy options, the judge ruled.
The Minnesota utility commission also ignored an indigenous environmental justice group’s petition to require an environmental review of the project under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act. The utilities commission said the state of Wisconsin is responsible for assessing the environmental impacts from the plant.
Burning natural gas in high efficiency power plants like Nemadji Trail produces 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. However, methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. And leaks during production, transmission and distribution offset at least some of its benefits. Natural gas combustion also produces air pollution in the form of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to smog.
In 2017, 64 percent of Dairyland’s energy came from coal, 19 percent from wind and solar, and five percent from natural gas, according to the company’s 2017 annual report. Dairyland projects that its energy portfolio will include 50 percent coal, 21 percent wind and solar, and 20 percent natural gas in 2027.
Dairyland president and CEO Barbara Nick told the La Crosse Tribune during an editorial board meeting this month that the Nemadji Trail natural gas plant was “renewable-enabling.” Unlike wind and solar, which are available intermittently, natural gas provides reliable, dispatchable energy that can be obtained on demand, Nick said.
Natural gas has been viewed as a bridge to increased renewable energy production in the past, but new technology is quickly improving. Utility-scale solar energy costs as much as natural gas, according to the New York Times, and the price of wind is even lower. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts significant headway in wind, solar and battery storage to replace energy needs traditionally filled by running coal and dispatchable natural gas plants.
“When you make investments in fossil fuel plants like [Nemadji Trail], we’re committing ourselves to decades of burning natural gas,” Klemz said. “You don’t make that size of investment and shut it down five years later. It would be at least decades of greenhouse gases from that plant.”