A Minnesota Utility Is Swapping Coal for Solar. It’s Like Taking 780,000 Cars Off the Road

Xcel Energy is replacing its massive coal plant in Becker, Minnesota, with a 710-megawatt solar farm. It's reigniting debate over what society owes rural coal towns struggling amid the energy transition.

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Xcel Energy's Sherburne County Generating Station, also known as Sherco, is Minnesota's largest coal-fired power plant, located in the city of Becker. The utility retired one of three generating units at Sherco on Dec. 31, 2023, and plans to retire the remaining two in 2026 and 2030. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

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One of the largest coal plants in the country will soon be replaced by the nation’s biggest solar farm. It’s part of a growing trend that climate and environmental justice advocates say is necessary to mitigate the accelerating climate crisis while safeguarding the rural coal communities that have the most to lose from the clean energy transition.

On New Year’s Eve, Xcel Energy shut down one of three power generating units at Sherburne County Generating Station, Minnesota’s largest power plant and among the biggest coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. The utility, which has pledged to generate 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, plans to shutter the facility’s remaining two units in 2026 and 2030.

The plant, known more commonly as Sherco, has been a cornerstone of Minnesota’s energy mix since first coming online in 1976, capable of producing a whopping 2.2 gigawatts of electricity—enough to power 1.5 million homes.

It’s also Minnesota’s largest source of carbon emissions. Sherco released roughly 10.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2022, according to the facility’s annual report to the Environmental Protection Agency. Retiring just one of the plant’s generation units will prevent about 3.6 million metric tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere each year, Xcel said. That’s equivalent to removing more than 780,000 cars off the road, according to EPA calculations.

“It’s a big step in transitioning our electric supply,” Allen Gleckner, clean electricity director for the nonprofit advocacy group Fresh Energy, told Minnesota Public Radio. “Adding a big solar project where a coal plant is retiring is indicative of the transition we’re seeing, and brings lots and lots of benefits.”

But the fight to slow climate change has also come at a huge cost to rural coal towns like Becker, Minnesota, where Sherco has employed hundreds of residents for nearly five decades. In fact, the plant still provided 75 percent of the city’s tax base as recently as 2019.

Coal plant retirements are expected to accelerate over the next decade, driven by falling clean energy costs and public opinion about climate change. By 2035, the nation’s coal generating capacity will be just half of what it was in 2015, according to a 2022 report by RMI, a clean energy think tank. And coal mining employment fell 57 percent between 2011 and 2020, the report said, with the losses concentrated in isolated rural communities that often struggle to reinvent their economies.

“The workers and communities that have hosted this energy infrastructure have helped keep the lights on for generations,” Jeremy Richardson, the manager of RMI’s carbon-free electricity program and a co-author of the report, said in an interview. “They should not be expected to bear all of the negative impacts of the shift to clean energy that we have to make to protect the climate.”

Mitigating those economic losses in Becker is one of the reasons Xcel decided to replace Becker’s coal plant with a solar farm. The utility began construction of its Sherco Solar project last year and has applied for a permit to expand it. If all goes according to plan, the company said, the project will have generating capacity of 710 megawatts, making it the largest solar farm in the country. Xcel is also installing 10 megawatts of battery storage capacity that can be deployed for up to 100 hours.

Xcel also announced last year that it was planning to replace another retiring coal plant in Minnesota with some 650 megawatts of new solar capacity, which it says can supply about 130,000 homes with electricity every year. That plant is scheduled to retire in 2028.

It’s a trend that Richardson expects will accelerate in the coming years as utilities and local governments take advantage of generous tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act—President Joe Biden’s cornerstone climate law. Utilities like Xcel can receive upwards of 70 percent of their investments back through tax credits, Richardson said, so long as they meet a number of requirements, including paying employees the prevailing wages. Developers can slash 10 percent off the cost of their clean energy project, he said, just by building it in a city where a coal plant or mine has been closed.

It’s worth noting, however, that the economic trade off isn’t equal, Richardson added. Coal plants and other fossil fuel facilities, by the nature of how they operate, employ far more people than solar and wind farms, he said, meaning many career coal workers will still have to find other work and likely need retraining.

According to Xcel, the Sherco Solar project will create nearly 400 union construction jobs and bring in an estimated $350 million in local economic benefits. But once the project is complete, the solar farm will require just 18 personnel to operate and maintain it, compared to the roughly 240 people working at the coal plant.

That’s why Richardson thinks it’s important to continue having a discussion about how to best support coal communities and how society should split up that responsibility fairly between involved parties, including community members, ratepayers and utilities.

“The way that people can think about this is as an economic development opportunity, and it doesn’t have to be about climate,” he said. “It really is about, ‘How do you revitalize these communities? How do you invest in these communities?’”

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Newsom Proposes to Cut $2.9 Billion From State Climate Programs: California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday unveiled his proposal to slash $2.9 billion in climate-related spending from the state budget, as part of a larger plan to address the state’s $38 billion deficit, Alejandro Lazo reports for CAL MATTERS. The budget still retains $48.3 billion for climate efforts. Still, activists criticized the move, saying it would only cost the state more down the line as warming increases. Among the initiatives cut is one that put $40 million toward helping communities adapt to extreme heat.

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Today’s Indicator

1.9%

That’s how much U.S. carbon emissions declined in 2023, according to an analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group. That’s good news, considering the economy grew last year. The bad news is that it wasn’t enough to meet the Biden administration’s climate goals.

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