MANKATO — At a public hearing Wednesday at the Mankato Civic Center, area residents were mostly supportive of an Xcel Energy’s 15-year plan to cut carbon emissions by 80% in 10 years through wind and solar expansion, although several residents said the plan doesn’t go far enough.

Others criticized the company’s application to extend operations at its nuclear power plant in Monticello from 2030 to at least 2040, along with the use of natural-gas fired plants in the future.

It was the last of five meetings held throughout the state to hear public feedback on the proposals, and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is considering that feedback as it considers whether to approve the plan, including the closure of its remaining coal-burning facilities.

“That involves retiring our King plant, which is located near Stillwater,” said Bria Shea, director of regulatory policy, strategy and analysis for Xcel. “We also have announced plans to retire our Sherco unit in Becker. “In addition to our biggest wind initiative in Xcel Energy’s history, we also propose to add 4,000 megawatts of solar.”

Shea said that’s enough renewable energy to power 650,000 homes each year, and the wind expansion is expected to be complete by 2022.

Aaron Budge, acting dean of for the college of science, engineering and technology at Minnesota State University, spoke in support of the company’s renewable energy expansion, and commended Xcel’s investment toward wind and solar energy. Researchers in his department have been conducting wind studies on campus to locate positions using smaller wind turbines that can be used in an urban setting.

“Xcel Energy has been very generous to our engineering programs, literally providing millions of dollars of investment to look towards wind energy, solar energy.”

The people who spoke addressed what they say are positive changes when it comes to renewable energy expansion, but Mankato resident Briana Baker, who works with low-income residents on energy efficiency, pointed out the positive feedback focused on renewable energy, not the natural gas and nuclear energy proposals.

“When people say they support this plan, the first thing they say is because of the amount of renewables,” Baker said. “That’s the important part.”

Shea told the audience that part of the company’s plan is to supplement those renewable sources with a mixture of gas and nuclear power. Some residents were critical of the natural gas expansion and the proposed extension of nuclear energy production at the power plant in Monticello.

“I have a number of concerns about the plan,” said Sierra Club member Allan Campbell. “It calls for a significant increase in frack gas infrastructure across the power grid. While it’s true that frack gas may produce only half the carbon dioxide that coal produces, the methane emitted in the poorly regulated fracking process results in even more global warming potential in the short term.”

Mankato resident Jody Swanson, a near lifetime customer of Xcel, also expressed concerns that Xcel’s plan lacks urgency in the face of climate change.

“This future frightens me,” Swanson said. “I urge Xcel to accelerate its change to clean energy with the lowest environmental impact.”

But Lucas Franco, a union member representing 12,000 construction workers through Minnesota and North Dakota, said the plan is bold and balanced.

“Some folks argue that we should abandon natural gas and nuclear,” Franco said. “We need something to help ease our transition to a clean energy future. Natural gas and nuclear help keep the lights on while we make this bold transition.”

Public Utilities Commissioner Hannah Terwilliger said comments made at the five public forums will be summarized and considered as the commission makes a final decision to approve, reject or modify the plan. Along with public comments, the final decision will be based on reliability of service, keeping prices down, minimizing adverse environmental effects and the utility’s ability to respond to changes affecting its operations. The final decision is expected in late 2020.

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com

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