Plans to retire coal plants in Minnesota could rely on extending nuclear power via StarTribune

Nobody knows the future of wind and solar power, but experts agree the technology isn’t there yet to rely on those resources alone. 

By  Greg Stanley

Xcel Energy’s race to retire coal plants and remove carbon emissions from the state’s power grid may rely on plans to keep Minnesota’s three aging nuclear reactors operating for decades.

That prospect has a number of environmental groups, some of which have protested the state’s nuclear policies in the past, wrestling with how to respond. In an era when greenhouse gases and climate change have become a more pressing environmental threat than nuclear waste, several groups want to take a closer look at the potential benefits of Minnesota’s nuclear reactors.

Some places such as Germany are actively trying to shutter their nuclear plants, and several states across the country are retiring them early in a search for cheaper energy. But here in Minnesota, nuclear power may be a linchpin in Xcel’s efforts to meet its promise to customers to make energy production carbon-free by 2050, said Chris Clark, Xcel’s president for Minnesota and the Dakotas.


Upgrades needed
Minnesota’s three reactors, one in Monticello and two in Prairie Island, have been providing about a fifth of the state’s power, or even more, for decades. They need extensive upgrades — in the range of $1.4 billion — to continue operating to the end of their permits in the early 2030s. With that kind of investment, Xcel plans to ask nuclear regulators to extend the life of at least one of the reactors until 2040.


Since 2013, nine nuclear reactors have been shut down years before their permits were set to expire, including in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Several more would have been retired in Illinois and New York had state lawmakers not stepped in to subsidize their reactors to keep them open as carbon-free options.

Losing nuclear power is shortsighted, especially when that power is replaced by natural gas, Clark said.


If the proposal to extend the life of the Monticello plant moves forward, Clemmer said, regulators will need to watch out for that.

“It’s really important that we take a close look at exactly what is needed, what it will cost and make sure this would be able to operate safely for another 20 years,” Clemmer said.

By keeping the reactors around, the state has an option if technological advances don’t come as quickly as many hope, Clark said.

Xcel’s highly touted plan to be carbon-free by 2050 calls for cutting carbon emissions by 80% in just 10 years. But the utility said it would need another 20 years after that to cut the rest — and nobody is quite sure how to do that yet.

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