DULUTH – Minnesota Power will shutter and convert its last two coal-power plants by 2035 as it moves toward a promised 100% carbon-free energy mix by 2050.
The Duluth-based utility, which serves a broad swath of northeastern and central Minnesota, announced the timeline Tuesday ahead of the company filing a detailed 15-year plan with state regulators in February.
"We're no longer just dreaming of a carbon-free future," said Bethany Owen, CEO of parent company Allete Inc. "We believe Minnesota Power is ready to reach this goal."
By the end of the decade Minnesota Power intends to shut down the Boswell Energy Center Unit 3, a 335-megawatt coal-fired plant in Cohasset. The utility plans to add 400 megawatts of solar and wind energy by 2030 to replace it.
The company also said it will be working with the community and the workers affected by the plant shutdown. Minnesota Power is one of the largest employers in Itasca County — Boswell employs 165 — and a major taxpayer.
"We're really focused on ensuring that transition is thoughtfully done," Owen said.
Since the company first signaled it would move away from coal, community leaders have been working to attract new jobs and industries to the region. How well those efforts perform could have a major impact on the area's economy.
By 2035, Minnesota Power intends to transition the 468-megawatt Boswell Unit 4 off coal, which could mean a switch to natural gas, biomass or other sources as advances in technology allow.
With closures planned for all of the state's other coal plants by 2030, Unit 4 will likely be the last coal-power plant in Minnesota by the time it is converted.
"Retiring Boswell Units sooner would create significant cost increases for customers and put the reliability of our grid and service in jeopardy; we need time to prepare the grid for retirement and enable new technology that will be emerging," Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said.
The small Boswell Unit 1 and 2 were taken offline in 2018. The company has retired or converted seven of its nine coal-fired units since 2013.
Environmental groups praised Minnesota Power for reaching 50% renewable energy last month while also calling into question the utility's continuing plans to build a natural-gas power plant in Superior, Wis. The $700 million plant, now tied up in court over permitting issues, would produce 525 to 625 megawatts of electricity and be co-owned with Wisconsin's Dairyland Power Cooperative.
"If we are going to celebrate this number we have to stick to it, and that means no new fossil fuels including no new gas plant," JT Haines with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said after the 50% renewable milestone was announced in December.
The company said the plant is needed as a bridge to keep the lights on — and large industrial customers running — when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. It could also be converted to cleaner fuels like hydrogen later on.
Still, the threat of climate change means action is needed sooner, Haines said Tuesday.
"The urgency of climate change demands action now, not in the last few years before 2050," he said. "We have reliable options now that are cheaper and cleaner."
Even with the natural gas plant, the company is on track to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% of 2005 levels by 2035, ahead of the state's target.
Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility, has also announced intentions to be carbon-free by 2050.
It plans to close the Allen S. King Power Plant in Bayport by 2028 and all units at Sherco near Becker by 2030.
Minnesota Power has about 145,000 customers but sells much of its power to taconite mining operations and paper mills.
"This announcement seems to finally recognize the gravity of the moment we are in, in terms of the climate crisis and the need to shift to clean energy sources," said Bret Pence with Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, a climate justice group. "This plan is a proposal that is just getting started, and MNIPL looks forward to working with our communities, partners and Minnesota Power to make sure this is a just plan that meets the climate crisis moment we are in, and builds for a better northern Minnesota."
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a decision on Minnesota Power's energy plans late this year. Environmental groups, ratepayer advocates, large industrial customers and others are expected to weigh in to shape the outcome.
"It's been over a year of very intensive, intentional engagement so far," Owen said. "We're seeking to understand perspectives to meet our commitment to customers and communities in a way that works."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496