‘Tis not the season to be jolly for natural gas stakeholders. A whopper of a legal battle is brewing over a proposed new $700 million natural gas power plant in Wisconsin, and now the Minnesota Court of Appeals has pulled the rug out from under the project because — wait, what? In what universe can the long arm of the law reach over from Minnesota to poke at a fossil fuel project clear across the state line?
One Natural Gas Power Plant, Two States
Our friends over at the Duluth News Tribune have the scoop on the fight over the proposed power plant, so follow the link for more details and to support local journalism.
The plant will be located in an industrial area of the city of Superior, Wisconsin. It’s just a couple of miles from the state’s border with Minnesota, but that’s not exactly why Minnesota gets a say in the decision.
One of the plant’s two developers is the Minnesota-based company Minnesota Power, which explains how the Minnesota Court of Appeals got involved.
The other developer is Dairyland Power Cooperative, which is headquartered in Wisconsin.
Who Needs A New Natural Gas Power Plant Anyways?
Somewhat cautiously dubbed the “Nemadji Trail Energy Center,” the new facility is being pitched as a means of supporting renewable energy on the local grid. The idea is to have a base guarantee of fossil-sourced electricity available 24/7 when intermittent sources — namely, wind and solar — are not up to the task.
That’s a familiar argument, but it’s carrying less weight as smart grid technology, demand response programs, energy storage, hybrid wind-solar power plants, and distributed energy resources gain a foothold in the US energy landscape.
Public opinion has been running against the new natural gas power plant since last year, and even industrial electricity ratepayers in the area oppose it. That includes iron ore mines and paper mills, as well as other energy companies, which argue that there are less costly pathways for ensuring reliability.
However, the developers have been rallying support among local elected officials, and the proposal has been wriggling its way through the approval process in both states.
Minnesota Brings Hammer Down On Natural Gas
That brings us up to December 23. Mere days before Christmas Day, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dropped a big, fat lump of coal in to the natural gas stocking. Here’s the Duluth Tribune with the latest:
“Minnesota regulators must consider whether a proposed natural gas plant in Superior could have “significant environmental effects” before allowing the project to proceed, a three-judge panel ruled Monday.”
Yikes! According to the three wise people on the panel, the Minnesota Public Service Commission did not do its homework back in 2018, when it gave its seal of approval to the project.
Apparently the court was not fooled by the developers’ argument that the plant would be located outside of Minnesota PSC’s jurisdiction. The panel determined that there are no geographical limits to PSC’s jurisdiction in terms of environmental impacts, and the judges were not swayed by the developers’ use of affiliated companies to dodge the jurisdictional issue.
The Fossil Fuel Clock Is Ticking
The next step involves the Minnesota Public Service Commission reconsidering the need for an environmental assessment.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is also still wading through the review process, and a decision on that score is not expected until 2020.
Meanwhile, the race is on between the new natural gas power plant and all those other technologies listed above.
The longer the plant is delayed, the more opportunities for clean tech to provide the grid services that such a facility would provide, and the more opportunities for costs to keep falling for wind and solar energy, as well.
Dairyland is already part of a movement toward more renewable energy among the nation’s sprawling rural electric cooperative network, which puts it in a good position to take advantage of new clean tech as it comes into the market.
As of now, the proposed power plant would not go into operation until 2025. Although the developers argue that it could be converted to a cleaner fuel like hydrogen (presumably renewable hydrogen) at some point in the future, that option would involve additional expense — if it ever materializes, that is.
Either way, ratepayers will be on the hook for the 30-year lifespan of the power plant.
CleanTechnica is reaching out for comment from the Minnesota paper industry to see where they’re finding less costly alternatives to new natural gas power plants, so stay tuned for more on that.
Follow me on Twitter.