Proposed Gas-Fired Power Plant in Wisconsin Faces New Opposition

New opposition has emerged surrounding a power plant Minnesota Power, Dairyland Power Cooperative, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative are teaming to build along the banks of the Nemadji River in Superior, Wisconsin. Environmental groups Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin have been fighting construction of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) since at least February 2020, but now, the StarTribune, a Minneapolis, Minnesota–based media outlet, reports local leaders, some of whom previously supported development of the facility, have turned against the project.

In an article published on Feb. 28, the StarTribune noted “at least four members of the 10-member Superior City Council oppose the project with several undecided.” Superior Mayor Jim Paine was also said to be against the project now, after suggesting state and federal scrutiny of the project has been lax.

A State-of-the-Art Plant

NTEC is a proposed natural gas–fired combined cycle power plant with an expected capacity in the range of 525 MW to 625 MW (Figure 1). The project was originally announced by Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power in June 2017, with expectations that construction could begin in 2020 and the unit could come online as early as 2024. After the project stalled, Basin Electric signed a deal in September 2021 to buy a 30% stake in the plant from ALLETE, Minnesota Power’s parent company. Dairyland Power remains a 50% owner in the facility.

1. Nemadji Trail Energy Center is planned in partnership with Dairyland Power Cooperative, ALLETE’s Minnesota Power, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Courtesy: Dairyland

In filings submitted to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC), the proposed project is said to include one H-class gas turbine generator, one heat recovery steam generator with duct firing, and one steam turbine generator. The plant is expected to provide backup power for the utilities’ efforts to expand their use of renewable energy resources. The PSC documents also say NTEC is part of a larger group of projects, which include the construction of a 345-kV transmission line, the relocation of an existing Superior Water, Light & Power 10-inch gas pipeline, and the construction of a new SWL&P 16-inch lateral natural gas pipeline that will tap the existing Great Lakes Gas transmission pipeline.

The project seemed well-supported from the start. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the facility in October 2018, as part of Minnesota Power’s EnergyForward Resource Package. Local officials were behind the project early on as well. As POWER reported in 2019, “Superior city councilors in October signaled their support for the Nemadji Trail plant, unanimously approving a resolution that states the city ‘fully supports the Nemadji Trail Energy Center,’ which is the largest private investment in the city’s history.”

Environmentalists Object

But environmental organizations were not as supportive. Honor the Earth, a Native American–focused environmental group, along with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Sierra Club, fought the PUC’s decision, and a Minnesota court, on Dec. 23, 2019, said the plant needed more environmental review before construction could proceed. Meanwhile, after the Wisconsin PSC approved the project in January 2020, Clean Wisconsin and Sierra Club filed suit on Feb. 28, 2020, to stop construction, arguing the plant would pose significant risks to the environment and that the PSC should not have issued a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to greenlight the project.

Still, project developers have navigated the obstacles fairly well. On May 17, 2022, a Wisconsin Circuit Court upheld the PSC’s approval of the project, and on Dec. 15, 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the NTEC project for the second time. Dairyland Power in a press release following the approval said, “The FONSI conclusion document reissuance is an affirmation of the natural gas plant’s essential role as an always-available, critical capacity resource supporting the clean energy transition.” The FONSI was said to affirm that “no significant impacts to the quality of the human environment would result from construction and operation of the facility,” according to Dairyland Power.

Supporters Step Forward

“From filling in critical gaps when solar and wind output is low to serving as a safety-first resource during storms and extreme temperatures, NTEC is key to sustaining grid reliability and supporting renewable energy production,” John Carr, Dairyland vice president of Strategic Growth, said in a statement announcing the FONSI decision.

Minnesota Power COO Josh Skelton said, “Throughout this multiyear process, the project owners have sought input from all stakeholders, as well as fully complying with state and federal approvals, permitting requirements and extensive environmental reviews. NTEC is an important component of our EnergyForward strategy as we continue to advance a clean-energy transition while safeguarding reliable service to our customers.”

Meanwhile, Basin Electric Senior Vice President and COO Gavin McCollam added, “This project aligns with our commitment to provide affordable, reliable energy to our member-owners through an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Utilizing the latest high-efficiency combustion turbines with the potential to burn hydrogen will ensure this facility remains an important energy source for the region long into the future.”

There are many outside supporters of the NTEC project as well. On Feb. 6, 2024, a rally was held in Superior, organized by the Northern Wisconsin Building trades. Approximately 175 people reportedly attended, including union members and representatives of the business community. Following the rally, union members attended the regularly scheduled city council meeting and some spoke in support of the project during the public comment portion of the agenda.

NTEC is expected to create more than 350 construction and 25 permanent jobs in Superior. The regional economic advantages include approximately $1 million in annual local tax benefit, according to the owners. Facility construction is currently expected to begin in spring 2024 with a 2028 in-service date anticipated.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@POWERmagazine).

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