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Coal's comeback
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The Big Stone Power Plant a few miles from Ortonville, MN has been in operation about 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Otter Tail Power Company)
Coal is making a comeback in the Upper Midwest, with several major projects being planned. One is an ethanol plant in southwest Minnesota. Another is a new power plant in South Dakota. Cleaner burning coal technology will hold down pollution, but some people believe coal is a poor energy choice.

Worthington, Minn. — A farm field near the small town of Heron Lake is the planned location for Minnesota's first coal-fired ethanol plant.

If it receives all the necessary permits, it would be the first major coal project in the state in nearly 10 years. That's when a new boiler system was approved for the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

Heron Lake BioEnergy board member Milt McKeown says this is a perfect time to build. Investors are interested in ethanol because the corn based fuel is profitable. About a thousand farmers and other investors pledged nearly $40-million to help build the Heron Lake plant. Most Minnesota ethanol plants use natural gas, but McKeown says coal was an easy choice.

"When we looked at the economics of it and compared it to natural gas, that's what started us off on the search to find a way to put together a coal-fired plant," says McKeown.

By one estimate coal is a half to a third cheaper than natural gas. ICM, a Kansas based engineering company, designed the Heron Lake plant. ICM's Bill Roddy says Heron Lake BioEnergy will use what he calls clean coal technology to reduce pollution. Roddy says most of the pollutants released at Heron Lake will be equal or less than those released by burning natural gas.

"Sulfur dioxide is the one pollutant that has more emissions than say gas," says Roddy. "But we're doing our best to reduce those emissions by about 90 percent."

More of a problem is mercury. Natural gas doesn't release any. Mercury is especially dangerous for infants and children. The Heron Lake ethanol plant will release about six pounds of mercury a year, a small part of the state's annual emissions of over 3000 pounds. The facility will use low mercury Wyoming coal. Janice Peterson lives downwind from the plant. The Lakefield resident says any mercury emitted is too much.

"Why is it that we want to start fouling the air? It doesn't matter how clean the coal is. There's no way that our air is going to be as clean as it was before this plant starts firing up their coal," says Peterson.

The Heron Lake ethanol plant is the smallest of several coal burning facilities being planned in the region.

An electricity plant proposed for Minnesota's Iron Range would use a coal gasification process. Coal is first converted to gas, than the gas is used to make electricity. Backers say it produces much less pollution than a conventional coal-fired plant.

That's what's being proposed in South Dakota.

The Big Stone power plant about 4 miles southwest of Ortonville, Minnesota has been operating 30 years. Otter Tail Power public relations specialist Steve Schultz says a partnership of six companies are investigating whether to add a second generating unit at the location.

"We expect the electricity useage to increase somewhere between 15 and 25 percent by 2012," says Schultz. "The reason we're looking at Big Stone is that when Big Stone I was built, a lot of the infrastructure was put in place for a second unit."

He says state of the art technology will reduce pollution more than 90 percent for certain gases compared to the existing Big Stone plant. Still, the comeback of coal concerns the Izaak Walton League's Sarah Welch.

"Mostly because of the fact that we have no good way of reducing or eliminating emissions of carbon dioxide from these large plants," says Welch.

The emissions are blamed for global warming. Most of the control over whether coal is used belongs to government regulators. The Heron Lake ethanol plant needs a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permit. The MPCA is expected to decide the permit question in the next couple of months.