Minnesota Power’s proposed natural gas power plant wins Minn. appeals court approval

Minnesota Power, which is working with Dairyland Power Cooperative to build a proposed $700 million natural gas power plant in Superior, Wis., applauded a recent appeals court ruling that brings the project closer to fruition.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals in an Aug. 23 ruling said the 625-megawatt Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) project planned for construction by 2025 near the Nemadji River is a “more reliable and lower cost source” of energy than equivalent-sized wind or solar power projects.

The appeals court, which reviewed the case on remand from the Minnesota Supreme Court, said that the relators reiterated their challenge to an order by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) approving the agreements between Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power to build and jointly operate the proposed gas plant.

The relators had argued that substantial evidence did not support the commission’s determinations that the power plant is needed and that the power plant serves the public interest better than a renewable-resource alternative. But the appeals court sided with the utilities and said in a 16-page opinion that Minnesota Power and the MPUC “offered extensive evidence and analysis showing that the transition away from coal and toward intermittent renewable resources impairs reliability and could cause a reliance on more expensive energy markets.” 

“Their analyses also demonstrated that NTEC addresses these concerns, providing a more reliable and lower cost (including environmental costs) source of energy than the equivalent renewable resources,” according to the ruling. “Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the commission’s determination that NTEC best serves the public interest.”

In a statement also released on Monday, Minnesota Power called the Minnesota appeals court ruling an “important step forward for the Nemadji Trail Energy Center project.” 

“The court affirmed a previous decision by the MPUC that the NTEC is a low-cost, flexible and necessary resource to meet the energy needs of the 145,000 customers Minnesota Power serves as it continues to lead the clean-energy transformation,” according to the utility’s statement. “The court also agreed with the MPUC’s decision that NTEC serves the public interest better than equivalent renewable intermittent resources.”

Minnesota Power and La Crosse, Wis.-based Dairyland Power Cooperative first proposed NTEC in 2017, saying they would jointly operate the much-needed gas plant to ensure reliability as they transition from coal-fired power plants to more solar and wind power projects. 

Since then, however, NTEC has come up against several legal challenges from groups such as the Sierra Club, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Honor the Earth, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Another legal challenge seeking to block NTEC is pending in Wisconsin where Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club in February 2020 petitioned an administrative law judge to review a prior approval by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

In applauding the appeals court ruling, Minnesota Power said “the court affirmed a previous decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the NTEC is a low-cost, flexible and necessary resource to meet the energy needs of the 145,000 customers Minnesota Power serves as it continues to lead the clean-energy transformation.”

Minnesota Power also pointed out that it “is the first utility in the state to achieve the delivery of 50 percent renewable energy to its customers and has announced a vision of achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050.”

NTEC is part of Minnesota Power’s EnergyForward plan to reduce carbon by 80 percent and achieve coal-free operations by 2035. The utility said that natural gas plays an important role in the clean-energy transition as it provides a flexible and efficient means to support additional intermittent renewable resources while maintaining reliability and affordability. 

Kim Riley

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