By Pat Kessler

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — A Minnesota Senate committee on Thursday approved a go-ahead for Xcel Energy to build a huge natural gas power plant north of the Twin Cities metro in Becker.

The facility would replace two coal-fired plants that Xcel Energy plans to shut down. But how Xcel is trying to get approval for the plant is raising eyebrows at the Capitol.

Normally for a project like this, Xcel would wait for the Public Utilities Commission to make a decision. But the giant utility says that would take too long, and it wants the legislature to approve it now.

Xcel Energy is asking Minnesota lawmakers to give it the early go-ahead to replace the aging coal fired plants near Becker. Promising not to charge Xcel customers for any work until it gets final approval from the Public Utilities Commission.

“Not one dime of this plant will go on customer’s bill until we have gone through a rate case with the Public Utilities Commission. This bill changes nothing about that process,” Rick Evans with Xcel Energy said.

Xcel is planning to de-commission two Sherco coal-fired units by 2026. The mayor of nearby Becker, where many of the workers live, says the uncertainty of the plant closings is affecting jobs and businesses.

“The loss of those payroll dollars will be felt by our community and the impact of those jobs lost is devastating. The news of the decommissioning sent waves of uncertainty through our city,” Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram said.

The Public Utilities Commission won’t even hear Xcel request for a new natural gas power plant until October. And some lawmakers wonder why Xcel is is such a hurry.

“Why should we as legislators be doing this? It clearly is an end run around the process,” Sen. John Mary of Roseville said.

Instead of a huge natural gas plant, critics say Xcel should be planning a green energy future. And want the hurry-up to maximize profits.

“The size of the plant equals the size of the investment. The size of the investment equals the size of return and that goes to shareholders at the expense of rate payers,” Lee Currie with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said.

Xcel is estimating the new natural gas power plant will cost $800 million. And its bid to hurry up construction is so far getting overwhelming support. But the biggest battle is yet to come: Whether fossil fuels or clean energy are the best ways to generate power.

Pat Kessler

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