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Minnesota will soon be home to 5th largest solar facility in the nation

Xcel's Sherco plant transitioning from coal to solar
Xcel's Sherco plant transitioning from coal to solar 03:44

BECKER, Minn. — In a new rule, the EPA says coal plants need to start capturing their smokestack emissions or shut down. It's a move to curb planet-warming emissions — something Minnesota wants to do by going carbon-free with our electricity by 2040.

Utilities are doing so by shifting to more renewables.

Xcel Energy's Sherco coal plant in Becker is a mammoth maze of massive machinery.

"What you see on the ground is about 2 million tons of coal which equates to two months of burning if both are operating at 100% power," said Plant Director Michelle Neal.

That coal is loaded into a 21-story 3,000-degree fireball boiler that's suspended from the roof.

"It's rewarding and it's a fascinating machine," said foreman Eric Stotko who has been working here for 25 years.

"This is American industry at its absolute best at its height," said Neal.

The Sherco plant powered 1.5 million homes for nearly five decades before one of the three units shut down a few months ago.

There are other signs that the power is shifting. One of the three units is officially offline for good. The other two are also slated for retirement.

"This really is the epicenter of Minnesota's energy transition," said Ryan Long, Xcel Energy President of Minesota and North Dakota. "This will be the last coal unit on our system to retire."

Coal-powered plants like this one still generate nearly one-fourth of Minnesota's electricity. That's down from nearly 50% in 2014 Natural gas makes up another 24%. Nuclear fills in another 21%. Renewables, like wind, solar, hyrdro and biomass, now pull the most weight at 32% — up from 21% just a decade ago.


You can see that growth on the horizon from the roof of the Sherco plant.

Just up the road from the Sherco plant is Xcel's Sherco solar facility. It's the largest solar project in the state of Minnesota, and by the time it's done in 2026, it'll be the fifth-largest solar facility in the country.

"There's a lot of pride in it I'd like to say this is kind of our first leap into utility-scale solar for Xcel Energy, and we're doing it right and doing it big," said Chris Hogg, Xcel Energy Senior Operations Manager

When it's done there will be 1.8 million solar panels covering 4,500 acres across three sites in the area.

"This was mostly potato fields," said Hogg.

They'll start testing this first phase over the summer and flip the switch this fall.

" I think Minnesota is a great place for solar," said Hogg "It's very reliable energy at this point."

Renewables have grown big time in our state. Minnesota is 11th in the nation just behind Colorado. Texas leads the pack.

The MPCA says since 2005, emissions from electricity generation are down more than 50%.

"Solar is only 3% of our mix right now, so it's exciting to have a lot more online,"

"We've seen jobs created, we've seen a lot of investment in the state."

Minnesota is in the top 15 states for solar production and the leader among surrounding states.

When it comes to wind, we're 10th in the country. In our region, Iowa is out front, but we're tied with North Dakota for 2nd place.

"nobody loves the idea of shutting down we've been doing this a long time careers were built around doing this kind of work and we'd love to just keep right on doing it," Stotko said when asked about the transition.

"We made a commitment that all of our employees at Sherco that they will have a job with Xcel Energy if they want one when this plant retires in 2030," said Long. "They have supported us for decades and we have supported them and that's a partnership we want to continue."

Despite the significance of water in our state, hydroelectric power plants produce only about 1% of our total electricity. That's because of our terrain and a number of other factors.

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