In wake of Xcel study, forum pulls in crowd

Climate changes, clean energy, health discussed

 July 10, 2013

CLEARWATER — Clearwater resident Rose Thelen started Beyond Coal Central Minnesota with a group of friends this spring.
“We just wanted to do something about the problem of climate change,” Thelen said. “If we just sit by and do nothing, I’m quite sure it’s going to get worse.”

The organization hosted a public forum entitled “Clean Energy, Climate, and Health” on Tuesday night at Rejoice Lutheran Church in Clearwater. The speakers talked about climate change and the issue of pollution from coal-burning power plants. About 160 people attended.

Last month, President Obama called for regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Though specifics from his plan haven’t been revealed, the issue has been brought to light in Minnesota because of a recent study published by Xcel Energy.

Xcel released the results of a study last week that recommended it continue operating two units of the Sherco plant in Becker until more details about federal efforts to control power plants emerge.

Built in the 1970s, the Sherco 1 and 2 units produce about 20 percent of the energy used by Xcel’s Minnesota customers. They’ve also drawn ire from environmental groups, who claim pollution from the plants is unhealthy for people and contributes to smog that obscures views at Voyageurs and Isle Royale national parks and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Sherco plant is the state’s single-largest source of soot and carbon pollution, according to the Sierra Club.
Sherco units 1 and 2 currently are in compliance with all environmental regulations, according to a July 1 Xcel release. A third unit at the plant is closed for repair and was not part of this study, according to Patti Nystuen, a senior media relations representative at the company
“These are well-maintained power plants,” Jim Alders, Xcel’s regulatory strategy consultant, told the Times last week.
“They’re very economical and help keep the cost of power to our customers as low as possible.”

In December, six environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency, asking the agency to install better pollution controls at the plant.
The suit is still pending, according to Christine Goepfert, the Upper Midwest program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Xcel is spending $50 million to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and add mercury controls on the units. Those upgrades are expected to be completed in 2014.

Replacing the units with natural gas production would cost an estimated $1.7 billion, the study found.
J. Drake Hamilton, the science policy director at the Fresh Energy, an environmental organization, said Sherco is an opportunity for Minnesota to modernize its energy system.

She was involved in Xcel’s study but said she was disappointed the company decided to keep burning coal.
Hamilton spoke at the forum Tuesday. She talked about Minnesota’s current energy initiatives and of recent developments in pollution legislation.
She said people should consider climate change information from scientific, peer-reviewed journals.

Polar explorer Will Steger also spoke at the forum. Steger, who spent more than 1,000 days on polar ice, talked about his first-hand observations of climate change.
“We, unknowingly, are changing the environment on the Earth,” he said. “And because of that, there’s going to be a lot of mass extinction.”

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