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Economics of WI Gas Plant Proposal Questioned

Companies behind a proposed natural-gas plant for Wisconsin hope to break ground by 2025.
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Companies behind a proposed natural-gas plant for Wisconsin hope to break ground by 2025.

SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Legal proceedings continue involving a proposed natural-gas plant for northwestern Wisconsin. The plans have been approved by state regulators, but opponents say there are still several ways the facility could harm residents, including their pocketbooks.

Dairyland Power Cooperative and Minnesota Power want to construct the $700 million plant in Superior.

Groups such as the Sierra Club say recent studies, including one from the Rocky Mountain Institute, have shown natural-gas facilities are more of a cost burden as opposed to clean-energy projects.

Jadine Sonoda, campaign coordinator for the group's Wisconsin chapter, said the effort would be a waste of resources.

"This plant would be a stranded asset, meaning it's uneconomic to operate, by the early 2030s," Sonoda asserted.

As clean-energy costs trend lower, Sonoda pointed out how researchers found options such as wind and solar would save utility customers more money. Opponents argued there are broader environmental concerns for all of Wisconsin, including methane emissions.

The Sierra Club is part of a lawsuit seeking to overturn permits approved by the state. The utilities contended the plant could serve as a bridge fuel as they transition from coal plants to clean-energy sources.

Mark Dyson, senior principal with the Carbon-Free Electricity Practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, said his 2019 study found 90% of 88 proposed gas plants in the U.S., including the Superior facility, would not be economically feasible.

"The costs that a utility would incur to build and run a gas plant generally exceed the cost that the same utility would incur to build and operate a portfolio of clean-energy sources," Dyson reported.

Dyson added he is in the process of updating the analysis, which is expected to show the 2019 findings still hold true.

The Nemadji Trail Energy Center recently cleared a legal hurdle on the Minnesota side, but Dyson said the public should look no further in finding examples of a project losing steam. He pointed to Minnesota's Xcel Energy downsizing plans for a proposed gas plant earlier this year, amid public pressure.

"In part, it's due to the continued cost declines of renewables," Dyson stated.

Aside from the legal challenge, Wisconsin groups opposed to the project hope concerned residents appeal to Dairyland Power in hopes of a similar outcome.

Mike Moen is the Morning Edition producer and serves as a staff reporter for WNIJ. Every morning, he works with Dan Klefstad to bring listeners the latest Illinois news. He also works with the rest of the news staff on developing and producing in-depth stories. Mike is a Minnesota native who likes movies, history, and baseball. When most people hear his last name, they assume he is 100-percent Scandinavian. But, believe it or not, he is mostly German.
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