A rendering of the proposed new plant in Superior, Wis. Credit: Minnesota Power

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Activists are calling on Minnesota Power to revise its plans for a new power plant near Duluth and to close other facilities after a study found that existing plants disproportionately harm Native and lower-income communities.

A collective of organizations is asking Minnesota Power to refrain from burning natural gas to produce electricity at the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center, and instead to use wind and solar power. The collective is also asking Minnesota Power to close a biomass plant in Duluth immediately, and to shutter two coal plants in Cohasset, Minn.,–one by 2029 and another by 2030.

Those changes would prevent human deaths and comply with state and federal climate change goals, they argue.

Minnesota Power, based in Duluth, is the state’s second-biggest power utility company. The company, owned by Allete, Inc., serves 145,000 residential and commercial customers in northeastern Minnesota. The company runs a variety of coal, natural gas, biomass, wind, and hydroelectric plants. Half of its energy is produced by renewable sources.

The collective, Clean Energy Organizations, is comprised of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Sierra Club, and the Fresh Energy and Clean Grid Alliance. The group recently submitted its requests to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission as part of the planning process for the proposed $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center power plant in Superior, Wis.

Minnesota Power’s coal plants in Cohasset, Minn., sit near the Leech Lake Reservation, and a biomass plant that occasionally burns coal sits on the St. Louis River near Lake Superior in West Duluth. A report commissioned by the collective found that the plants impact the Native population three times more than non-Native people.

Our lives matter. My life matters. I’m a mom, grandma, sister, and community member, and I actually matter to a lot of people. Our health matters and that’s true for other native people too.

LeAnn Littlewolf, co-executive director of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth

LeAnn Littlewolf, co-executive director of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, said the state needs to move toward renewable energy as soon as possible. 

“As a Native woman, they say we’re predisposed to certain chronic diseases,” said Littlewolf, a Leech Lake tribal citizen. “There’s been shifts in our food system and access to resources that contribute to our health conditions and preconditions–so anything added can exacerbate that.

“So, I’m concerned about that. Our lives matter. My life matters. I’m a mom, grandma, sister, and community member, and I actually matter to a lot of people. Our health matters and that’s true for other native people too.”

Minnesota Power says that building a new gas plant is necessary to provide consistent energy to customers until 2050, when the company has pledged to be carbon-free. 

“This low-carbon natural gas plant will help ensure safe and reliable energy as we transition away from our dependence on coal,” company spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said in an email to Sahan Journal. Minnesota Power is the first utility in the state to reach 50 percent renewable resources, she added. 

Shifting to renewable energy at the Nemadji Trail Energy Center would cost slightly less than the proposed gas option, according to the collective’s analysis. Closing one of the coal plants in Cohasset, by 2025  and the other by 2030 would save an average of three lives per year, according to a study commissioned by the collective and conducted by the non-profit climate and environmental research institute, Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy. It would also reduce the cost of adverse health impacts by approximately $200 million, the study found.

“Are we valuing people’s lives and where we live and quality of life? Or are we valuing what’s cheapest and easiest?” said Jenna Yeakle, a Sierra Club organizer in Duluth. “What’s the status quo that we’re used to? The acceleration of renewable energy is better for the community’s health.” 

This biomass plant is located near low-income neighborhoods in West Duluth. Credit: Minnesota Power

Bridging the gap

Environmentalists and power companies agree on some basics: The benefits of closing coal plants and using renewable energy are clear, including slowing climate change and helping people live longer, healthier lives. Burning coal causes fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, to accumulate in the air. When people breathe in that hazy air, the particulates can damage the lungs.

But environmentalists and power companies disagree on how–and when–to get to that point.

“Energy experts throughout the country have been clear that we need flexible fuel sources such as natural gas to provide for our energy needs when there isn’t enough renewable energy available,” said Rutledge. “If we want to move away from coal quickly, natural gas helps us get to that goal.” 

The Clean Energy Organizations maintain that more needs to be done sooner to ensure global warming is kept within 1.5 degrees celsius by 2100. That benchmark is a common target scientists say would reduce the odds of the most catastrophic effects of climate change, said Stephanie Fitzgerald, staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

For decades, we lived under the shadow of those power plants but had no access to information about them. I use electricity. I would like to be an informed user of that electricity.

LeAnn Littlewolf, co-executive director of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth

While gas is less harmful to human health than coal, gas plants produce greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change 

“Upstream methane leakage throughout the gas supply chain (production, processing, and transmission) undermines any greenhouse gas benefits from switching from coal to gas,” said Elena M. Krieger, director of research at Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy. She co-authored the group’s study on Minnesota Power. *

Changing the process

Littlewolf passed by Minnesota Power’s coal plants on her way to school every day while growing up near Deer River about 10 miles west of  Cohasset. 

“I didn’t know what they were; they were just part of the landscape and I had no idea they were impacting my physical health,” she said. “I didn’t know until this report came out. That’s the kind of transparency our community needs.

“When we have energy facilities nearby, it should be communicated out, communicated to tribal leadership and the community. For decades, we lived under the shadow of those power plants but had no access to information about them. I use electricity. I would like to be an informed user of that electricity.”

The collective hopes that in the future, the state will require a health analysis as part of the approval process for all power plants. Other states, such as Michigan and California, have used similar analyses to regulate energy. 

While Minnesota doesn’t specifically ask utilities for potential health impacts, utility companies that want to build new fossil fuel power plants do have the burden of showing the state that renewable energy isn’t in the public interest, Fitzgerald said. 

Minnesota Power said that the Nemadji Trail Energy Center has already been approved as a gas plant. But the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission still has the power to accept, reject, or modify the plan. That decision could be made by August or September; comments about the plant are due at the end of June.

The Public Utilities Commission regulates energy companies in Minnesota.

Xcel Energy reversed course last year on a plan for an $800 million gas plant in Becker, Minn. when the Clean Energy Organizations raised criticisms similar to their issues with Minnesota Power.

“They ended up deciding, ‘Never mind,’ ” Fitzgerald said. 

Xcel instead proposed smaller gas plants elsewhere and a solar center in Becker, which the organizations supported. 

If Minnesota Power makes a similar decision, the Clean Energy Organizations say, it could have ripple effects throughout the industry.

“I think it would send a really strong signal that, ‘We’re taking seriously all the climate science,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t spend $700 million on building new fossil fuel infrastructure now.”

*CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that methane leakage increases the greenhouse gas impacts of direct CO2 emissions from gas combustion over a 20-year time period, but it does not double emissions compared to coal.