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A Minnesota town wants to replace its coal plant with solar. Some locals aren't happy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The renewable energy business is growing quickly in the U.S. With climate change, many of the nation's electric utilities are shifting away from burning fossil fuels towards cleaner forms of energy, such as wind and solar power. But in some places, renewable energy projects face local opposition. Kirsti Marohn of Minnesota Public Radio News reports.

KIRSTI MAROHN, BYLINE: In the central Minnesota town of Becker, longtime resident Randy Seeley made it clear what he thinks about a proposed solar project at a recent public hearing.

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RANDY SEELEY: So I'm not fond of this solar thing. I want affordable, reliable electricity, and I'm not confident in windmills and solar panels.

MAROHN: Seeley spent 37 years working at a massive coal-fired power plant in Becker that provides electricity for much of the upper Midwest. Xcel Energy plans to retire the coal plant over the next eight years, and Xcel wants to replace some of that electricity with what would be the biggest solar project in Minnesota.

Residents here are used to the sight of the coal plant smokestacks rising into the sky. But some, including John Vekved, testified they're unsettled by the image of the potato fields that surround Becker covered with solar arrays.

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JOHN VEKVED: How are you going to replace the amount of food that we're losing to grow in that area over the course of 30 years?

MAROHN: For decades, the Becker Coal Plant supplied the community with jobs and tax revenue. But growing climate concerns and the falling price of renewable energy like solar and wind are prompting many U.S. utilities to shutter coal plants. Xcel Energy says the solar project would help toward its goal of producing zero-carbon electricity by 2050, which clean energy advocates support.

ALLEN GLECKNER: It's a big step in transitioning our electric supply.

MAROHN: Allen Gleckner is clean electricity director for the nonprofit Fresh Energy.

GLECKNER: Adding a big solar project where a coal plant is retiring is indicative of the transition we're seeing and brings lots and lots of benefits.

MAROHN: Initially, Becker city officials objected to the solar project's location, worried it would prevent the city from growing. Xcel Energy agreed to remove about 250 acres from the project area, and the city now backs the proposal. If state regulators approve, the Becker solar facility is expected to generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes every year.

At the public hearing, many also spoke in favor of the project, including labor union members, who say it will create hundreds of construction jobs. Nathan Runke spoke on behalf of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.

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NATHAN RUNKE: We feel like it is a way for the men and women who have worked in the trades providing energy for this state for so many years to continue to build projects that will provide energy for the state going into the future.

MAROHN: But some Becker residents complained that the utility-scale solar farm will take up more land than the coal plant and provide a fraction of the jobs. Once the solar project is built, Xcel estimates just 4 to 6 permanent employees will be needed. That's far fewer than the 200-plus who work at the coal plant. Gabe Chan is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies energy policy.

GABE CHAN: These plants are closing anyway. And so the kind of comparison between the coal jobs that were there and the renewable jobs that will be there is a bit of an unfair comparison.

MAROHN: State regulators are expected to decide this summer whether to approve the permits Xcel needs to build the solar project.

For NPR News, I'm Kirsti Marohn in Becker, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.