Xcel Energy's large coal-fired generators at Becker face pressure for retirement

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Xcel Energy's large coal-fired generators at Becker face pressure for retirement

July 20, 2015

Xcel Energy Inc. is facing fresh pressure from clean-energy groups — and for the first time from a state agency — to curtail at least some coal burning at its giant Sherco generating station in Becker, Minn.


The plant on the banks of the Mississippi River is Xcel’s largest power plant, with three generators constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. It also is the state’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide linked to climate change, according to federal data.


The state Commerce Department, which analyzes Xcel’s power plant needs on behalf of ratepayers, recently recommended the utility convert one of the two older Sherco units to burn natural gas in 2025. Clean-energy groups want state regulators to require Xcel, the state’s largest power company, to retire both of the older Sherco units even earlier.


“The time for excuses is past,” said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul nonprofit that for the first time conducted its own analysis of Xcel’s costs and needs, relying on the same modeling software used by the utility. “These are very old, very dirty units, not just in regard to carbon but with regard to soot pollution that is damaging to human health.”


In January, Xcel said it wanted to retain the 1970s-era Units 1-2 until 2030, run them less and invest in more renewable energy. Sherco Unit 3, which is newer, recently rebuilt after an accident and part owned by another utility, would keep operating.


Sherco is getting renewed attention because every two years investor-owned utilities like Xcel are required by state law to review whether to build or retire power plants and other infrastructure. The idea is to plan ahead for major capital spending and shutdowns to avoid disrupting electric service.


The state Public Utilities Commission likely will vote later this year or in 2016 on Xcel’s latest long-range plan. If Sherco units are designated for retirement — an idea the PUC wanted Xcel to examine — it could set the stage for additional investment in other energy sources.

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