A roadside sign welcomes drivers to Superior, Wisconsin,
Credit: Jimmy Emerson / Creative Commons

When Jenny Van Sickle was elected to the Superior, Wisconsin, City Council in 2017, she joked that the first two calls she got were from her mother and representatives of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a proposed 625-megawatt combined-cycle gas-fired power plant planned for a site on the Nemadji River adjacent to her neighborhood, East End.

A social worker by training, she sought office to fight for things like mental health resources and accessible childcare. The nuances of a massive power plant proposal were beyond her expertise, and like other civic leaders, she was open to promises that it would provide jobs, a bridge to clean energy and grid reliability.

Heavy industry was nothing new in the port town; an Enbridge Energy oil terminal is also located in the neighborhood. In 2019, the council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the project.

But the more Van Sickle learned, the more she had doubts about the plant. She began asking more questions and felt like she was getting “misinformation and disinformation” from its developers — Dairyland Power Cooperative and Minnesota Power.

She was especially concerned to learn that the proposal included the possibility of burning heavily polluting diesel if natural gas wasn’t available.

“When you finally build up the courage to talk about it, it’s like a dam breaking,” she recounted, and other residents also began to share their fears.

Changing landscape

Now, Van Sickle devotes much of her life to opposing the $700 million power plant, which received crucial approval from the state Public Service Commission in January 2020 and is scheduled to go online by 2027 — if it receives permits still needed from agencies including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction could reportedly start next year.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin are demanding the Public Service Commission reconsider and reopen the process around the crucial certificate of public convenience and necessity that was issued in January 2020.

That’s because two major factors have changed since the commission granted the certificate.

Wisconsin utilities have launched plans to install 480 MW of battery storage by 2025. That’s enough storage to work in tandem with renewables to provide reliable power, advocates argue.

And the Inflation Reduction Act offers direct-pay incentives for renewables, replacing tax credits and making renewable development much more financially viable for nonprofit entities, including rural electric cooperatives like Dairyland, that don’t pay taxes.

Clean Wisconsin and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit challenging the Public Service Commission’s certificate. A district court backed the commission, and they are now awaiting an appellate court decision.

Clean Wisconsin staff attorney Brett Korte noted that the Public Service Commission has the authority to reopen a case when it chooses.

One of the three public service commissioners, Rebecca Valcq, argued against granting the certificate. Her dissent cited environmental impacts including erosion and the effect on wetlands, and she questioned the availability of water — to be drawn from an aquifer — to cool the plant. She also stated the plant was not needed for a reliable electric supply.

Advocates are hopeful the commission would decide differently if the case is reopened.

“It’s just a shame it got approved when it did, before a lot of other opportunities were there,” Korte said. “Ultimately it’s still an opportunity for Dairyland to make a different decision. They haven’t started construction; they could still make the right call here. There are all kinds of advocates and partners who would love to talk to them about other opportunities.”

Federal funding

Dairyland describes the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, or NTEC, as key to its investment in renewables, to provide power when they aren’t available.

Dairyland spokesperson Katie Thomson said Dairyland has submitted a letter of intent to apply for funding for 1,700 megawatts of wind and solar from the New ERA (Empowering Rural America) program created by the Inflation Reduction Act, which makes $9.7 billion available for rural electric cooperatives to transition to clean energy, administered by the USDA.

Dairyland spokesperson Deb Mirasola said that the Nemadji plant would not be included in that application, but “as we have noted all along NTEC is critical to supporting the new renewable additions. The Nemadji Trail Energy Center is key to the clean energy transition, as a reliable, low-emissions natural gas power plant which will ramp up and down quickly to support renewable energy.”

Thomson said Dairyland will likely apply for funding for the Nemadji plant through the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service program.

Korte said seeking federal funding for natural gas is “ironic and sad especially now with the new federal funding for renewables. We don’t think it’s a good investment at all. They would be better off investing in renewable energy including battery storage if they feel like they need that kind of peaking capacity.”

Indigenous and community issues

Van Sickle was the first person of color and Indigenous person elected to the Superior City Council. She is an Alaskan Native of Tlingit and Athabaskan descent. Meanwhile Superior sits amid ceded Indigenous lands on the edge of Lake Superior, which Ojibwe refer to as Gitchi-Gami.

The gas plant would pose a threat to the natural ecology that tribal members hold sacred, including the St. Louis estuary, critics say. Advocates are demanding a more stringent environmental impact study than the developers have already submitted, as part of the process to secure federal funding. Almost 10,000 letters have been sent to the USDA asking the federal agency to deny loans for the gas plant in order to protect Gitchi-Gami.

Additionally, the plant would be very near a cemetery where almost 200 Ojibwe ancestors were buried, after they were disinterred from a traditional burial ground in 1918 for U.S. Steel to build ore docks, which were never actually constructed.

The Nemadji application to the Public Service Commission acknowledges that it is within half a mile of three residential neighborhoods. Van Sickle described it as an environmental justice issue, with residents put at risk from the pollution and any accidents. Many residents still remember having to evacuate during a nearby refinery fire in 2018, and a benzene spill in 1992, at other local industrial facilities.

“I know what it’s like for my neighbors to live amongst these giants,” she said.

Van Sickle, who is known as an ally of labor unions, said the 350 jobs promised at the plant do not compensate for all the risks and concerns.

“In the last few years we have worked so hard to invest in East End,” she said, including by raising money to revamp Carl Gullo Park named for a local World War II veteran and educator. “If a local official is not going to protect their most sacred spaces, who will? Sometimes progress is saying no.”

Bigger picture

Along with the gas plant, the proposal calls for a new 345-kilovolt transmission line, relocation of an existing gas pipeline, and construction of a new gas pipeline to tap an existing gas supply network.

Van Sickle and other opponents argue that not only is the gas plant problematic in its own right, but it will also drive more investment in gas infrastructure and fracking, which has already had devastating environmental consequences for the larger Great Lakes region.

Dairyland says the plant could be retrofitted to run on up to 30% hydrogen, which is being promoted as an industrial energy source by the Department of Energy including with the establishment of hydrogen hubs nationwide.

The plant would be a merchant generator selling power on the open market in the MISO regional transmission organization territory.

“The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) has affirmed the need for NTEC to support additional renewable energy resources, while ensuring reliability is not compromised,” Mirasola said. “Dairyland is dedicated to providing sustainable, reliable and affordable power for our member cooperatives. NTEC will be a critical capacity resource to ensure reliable power for our members at a time when resource adequacy in the MISO region is declining significantly.”

Dairyland is made up of 24 member electric co-ops in southern Minnesota, western Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and northern Illinois, and also serves 17 municipal utilities. Rural cooperatives in theory provide their members more say in decisions than an investor-owned utility, but critics say that cooperative members that oppose more fossil fuel generation have not been heard.

Dairyland’s current power mix is about 52% natural gas and 48% coal, according to an analysis by the Sierra Club, which also found Dairyland could save members $55 million by retiring two coal plants and replacing them with renewables, without adding any new gas-fired generation.

“There’s a lot of hesitancy around clean energy because of misinformation from fossil fuel industry and lobbyists,” said Cassie Steiner, Wisconsin Sierra Club senior campaign coordinator. “Definitely we see some cooperative members bringing up those pieces of misinformation or viewing clean energy as a very politicized dichotomy, rather than something that is accessible, affordable, reliable. The frustrations we’re hearing are the member cooperatives maybe aren’t listening to clean energy advocates who are their members.”

One of those frustrated cooperative members is Dena Eakles, a writer and activist who runs organic Echo Valley Farm and a sustainability nonprofit in western Wisconsin. She is a member of Vernon Electric Cooperative, part of Dairyland, and she is upset that Vernon board members have not opposed the Nemadji Trail plan.

“To me, any kind of fossil fuel energy is not clean energy,” she said. “People just see the end result, my lights go on, my stove runs — everything’s hunky dory. We need more people to understand and put pressure on their own board. We just need to help each other understand the peril of this time.”

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.