Citing growing disillusionment with coal, and assurances from several utilities that they have their energy needs covered, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission nearly rescinded its Aug. 30 directive to the state's utility companies: that they try to buy from the proposed coal gasification plant when they go shopping for new power sources for the next 10 to 20 years.
The commission stopped short - for now - but only after a series of pessimistic prognoses for the Excelsior Energy plant proposed for Minnesota's Iron Range.
"We have a whole paradigm shift now," said commission Chairman Leroy Koppendrayer, pointing to news accounts that coal gasification plants have been delayed or canceled in Colorado, Florida and Arizona.
"We don't ever want to foreclose on the future," Commissioner Phyllis Reha said, "but I think we're all in agreement that what we have in front of us isn't going to fly."
It was the latest setback in a two-year process for Excelsior, including an administrative law judges' advisory ruling in April that the project is "not in the public interest."
Still, Excelsior is not without some victories. It received a $36 million clean-energy grant last spring, and it heard last month that it's on a short list for possible loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy. Coal and carbon dioxide The 600-megawatt Excelsior plant would produce electricity through a new process called coal gasification.
Unlike traditional coal-burning plants, it has the potential to capture carbon dioxide, the most problematic greenhouse gas. The Excelsior plant, as proposed, will not initially capture that CO2 because it's expensive and because the plant has no place to store or send it. Developers say that will be a relatively easy retrofit; opponents say that until that happens, it is lit le better than traditional plants. Xcel Energy has long maintained that it won't need any energy from Excelsior in 2011, when the plant would open.
Minnesota Power said it can meet its energy demands with renewable energy sources through 2020.
A chief executive of Excelsior Energy challenged the utilities' projections after the hearing. "The commission took at face value the utilities' assertion that there will be no need for fossil (fuel) generation," Julie Jorgensen said.
But there will be shortages, Jorgensen said: "Then they will want to switch to natural gas generation, and it's bad policy to consume massive quantities of natural gas to generate power when consumers can't afford to heat their homes as it is."