The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) unanimously voted Tuesday to approve environmental upgrades to Otter Tail Power’s large Big Stone coal-fired power plant near Milbank, S.D. This 475-megawatt plant serves roughly 60,000 customers in Minnesota, and the estimated $489 million retrofit will help the plant comply with federal regulations that protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and other wilderness areas from haze-causing pollutants emitted by the plant.
The upgrades will reduce haze-forming pollutants by 80 to 90 percent, but the MPUC’s decision ensures that the coal plant will stay operable for many decades to come and does nothing to curb carbon and other emissions. Environmental advocates say this is the wrong path and that this money should go towards developing and implementing cheaper, cleaner and better energy source alternatives. In terms of achieving long term environmental and economic goals, their stance is appropriate and laudable.
Still, there are some positive aspects of the MPUC’s decision that make short term progress towards achieving those long term goals. In addition to approving the retrofits to Big Stone, the commission did not approve similar upgrades to units at Otter Tail’s medium-sized Hoot Lake coal power plant near Fergus Falls, MN. This leaves open the possibility that these units could be shut down in the coming years as cheaper, cleaner and better alternatives come online to supply the state’s energy grid.
Despite the pitfalls and undesirability of burning a dirty fossil fuel that is becoming more and more expensive to use, coal currently provides a significant portion of Minnesota’s energy baseload. We cannot completely turn away from coal today if we want to turn on our lights tomorrow. We will continue to rely on coal to provide some, and hopefully less and less, of that baseload as we convert the state’s energy production portfolio to alternative sources like natural gas, wind and solar.
Although the MPUC’s decision may not accelerate the long term transition away from burning dirty fossil fuels, by deciding to clean up a large coal-fired power plant that can provide a stable baseload while alternative sources come online, and preserving the option to shut down coal plants we may not need as those sources come online, it is a practical short term decision that will make the transition to alternative energy sources smoother.