Coal’s changing landscape


Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued two rulings (the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards) that require new and existing coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce ozone, particulate matter and other toxic emissions.

These new regulations, combined with extremely low natural gas prices, have caused coal plants throughout the country to install significant emission-reduction upgrades, and have forced some of the oldest and dirtiest plants to shut down altogether. Expect to see these upgrades and potential shutdowns among the 10 major coal-fired power plants that supply energy to Minnesota customers.

Minnesota Power has been retrofitting the coal-fired units in its Boswell Energy Center (Northeast Minnesota’s largest energy generation station) over the past six years to reduce emissions, but recently announced a doubling of those efforts to its largest unit. Xcel Energy is currently in what it calls “a deep dive” to analyze its future energy generation needs, including the role played by the Sherburne County Generating Station, by far the state’s largest coal plant. In late December of last year, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) approved significant upgrades at Otter Tail Power’s Big Stone plant across the South Dakota border (which serves about 60,000 Minnesota customers) to mitigate harmful emissions.

But in the same decision the MPUC did not approve similar upgrades to Otter Tail Power’s two coal units at the Hoot Lake Power Plant near Fergus Falls, MN. While the major units getting upgrades were built in the 1970s or later, these smaller units were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, are some of the oldest coal-fired units in the state, and may succumb to the same fate that old coal plants throughout the country are currently facing.

With low natural gas prices and expensive retrofits pending, some of the country’s older and smaller (and consequentially dirtier) plants are simply no longer economically viable to operate. One example is the expedited closing of two coal plants outside Chicago this September. As Otter Tail Power analyzes its future energy generation and financial needs, the two Hoot Lake coal units may close up shop as well.  Coincidentally, Minnesota’s Department of Commerce recently concluded that Minnesota Power should close down 3 of its coal-fired units by 2016 and 2 more by 2020 due to economic concerns for consumers and industries.

Although we do not experience the direct impacts of coal mining here in Minnesota, we do feel the environmental and health impacts of burning one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth. Forward-thinking efforts by officials at the state and federal levels are helping move Minnesota toward a healthier and greener energy portfolio.