The Good News About Coal

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Isabel Ricker, Senior Policy Associate/Clean Electricity, Fresh Energy

Coal is known to be one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity — harmful for climate and health. Closing coal plants has been a priority for public health and environmental advocates. Over the past decade, the share of U.S. power from coal has been cut in half due to savvy legal work and broader market dynamics, like the fracked gas boom and super-cheap renewable power

The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, a partner of Fresh Energy, reports that 339 of 530 coal units in the country (64 percent) have now closed or announced a retirement date. 

Fresh Energy has worked for decades with government, utilities, and advocacy to secure retirement dates for all coal plants serving Minnesota customers. Recently, the last two coal units in Minnesota, at the Clay Boswell facility owned by Minnesota Power, announced retirement dates in 2030 and 2035. 

Despite the decline in coal generation, it is still the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air pollutants in our electric system. Chronic exposure to air pollutants can be deadly.

Recent research has found that particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18 percent of total global deaths — almost one in five — in 2018.

Solving Inefficiencies

In 2019, Fresh Energy began working with partners to examine how coal plants nationwide are being operated. A significant number of plants, especially in the Midwest, simply run year-round, rather than following market signals (turning on when prices are high, turning off when prices are lower). In some cases, this was costing customers millions of dollars per year in unnecessary fuel and operations costs.

Our research in 2019 locally found that all three of Minnesota’s public utilities operated their coal plants this way. The state Public Utilities Commission opened an investigation into the issue. The state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, made changes at two of their remaining four coal units — running them only when prices were high enough to justify it.

The following year, Xcel went further and gave the two units a “coal holiday” by idling them in the spring and fall seasons when electricity needs are lowest. These changes are reducing emissions on Xcel’s Minnesota system by 30 percent, saving up to $30 million in environmental costs, and saving customers $90-$130 million on bills through 2028. 

In the past year, the other public utilities — Otter Tail Power and Minnesota Power — announced changes at one coal unit and are exploring changes at the other two. These changes are a critical way to reduce emissions for the last 10-15 years of these units’ lives, increasing benefits to communities via lower energy bills, lower air pollution, and lower healthcare costs. 

Power plants are important elements of the local economy, supporting jobs and often contributing substantially to local tax base. We also know that coal plant retirements, and near-term operational changes, are necessary to keep costs low and avoid further environmental damage.

How Can You Get Involved?

Fresh Energy works with and supports host communities and workers in preparing for a cleaner future.

Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light is also an advocate on behalf of clean energy.

Let the MN Pollution Control Agency know you support Clean Cars Minnesota. The MPCA is proposing a rule change to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new cars beginning with 2025 models. Currently only 19 of 43 zero-emission models are available in Minnesota. The state is far below greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Support 100% Clean Electricity: Minnesota bill HF278/SF643 would transition Minnesota to 100 percent clean electricity by 2040.

Comment on Xcel’s integrated resource plan (IRP)