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While Minnesota has made considerable strides in recent years toward adopting cleaner energy, an ad campaign starting today will target two of the state’s utilities for their reliance on coal.

The Sierra Club will begin airing two television commercials on 23 cable stations calling for Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power to reduce their use of coal over the next 15 years.

Both ads charges that Minnesotans pay $420 million a for out-of-state coal, based on government and Union of Concerned Scientists data, for electricity instead of using renewable resources such as wind and solar.

The Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists are both members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

The two utilities have 15-year integrated resource plans due this year to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, said Michelle Rosier of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Minnesota.

Xcel is the largest utility in the state, with more than 1.2 million customers, while Minnesota Power, a division of Allete, is a powerhouse in northern Minnesota.

“We’re hoping with this TV ad to really draw attention to the fact it’s a choice — are they (utilities) going to continue investing in coal and sending the money out of state or are they finally going to announce plans to transition away from coal,” she said.

The commercials point to public opinion polls to make their point. An August 2014 statewide voter survey by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership showed a clear majority of Minnesotans want to reduce energy derived from fossil fuels and replace it with renewable energy.

The Northern Minnesota ad uses a Precision Poll Report from 2013 showing 74 percent of respondents favored reducing the need for coal and other fossil fuels in Minnesota Power’s territory. The utility current gets 80 percent of its power for coal plants, according to the Sierra Club.

At the end of the ad people are invited to visit a website where they can sign a petition asking the PUC and utilities to commit to a plan to move beyond coal, Rosier said. The time to demand a move away from coal is now because the 15-year plans greatly inform a utility’s future investments, she said.

The ads are running for a week and at multiple times of day, Rosier said, but “we’re playing it by ear” as to whether they’ll run longer.

Xcel’s plan is up for comment now while Minnesota Power’s is due in September.

The Sierra Club “recognizes what Xcel is doing” in terms of adding so much wind and solar in its resource plan, she said.

“The huge sticking point with them is they’d rather put off the decision as long as they can, and they’ve been doing that for five years,” Rosier said.

The Sierra Club would like Xcel to commit to phasing out Sherco and other coal plants in the state. “By 2030 they are not leaving themselves in a good position if they don’t have a phase-out plan,” she said.

Xcel leads the country in generating electricity from wind, she said, but it still gets nearly half its energy from coal. Xcel and Minnesota Power are the largest of the state’s independently owned utilities and neither have coal phase-out plans.

In contrast, the other IOU with coal, Otter Tail Power Company, made a commitment to retire its remaining plant in 2020.

“Once you’re serious and make the commitment you can plan for the real transition away from coal,” Rosier said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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