Xcel Energy plans to close two units at its Sherco coal plant, the largest in the state. Credit: Michael Hicks

Correction appended.

Julie Drennen had a busy summer. The 25-year-old helped plan 30 petition events to gather signatures for the campaign to close two units of Xcel Energy’s Sherco plant, Minnesota’s largest source of air pollution.

“We worked on petitioning at a lot of festivals and even set up tables at street corners to try to get people to sign a petition to close Sherco,” said Drennen, a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club’s North Star chapter. “Not everyone knew what was going on, so we’d explain what the issue was and try to get them to sign.”

And sign they did. More than 11,000 petitions — collected by Sierra Club, Conservation Minnesota, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Clean Up our River Environment and Fresh Energy — were submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Xcel announced in early October that the two oldest units of Sherco — short for the Sherburne County Generating Plant — would be closed over the next decade. The utility is also committed to developing 1,200 megawatts of new renewable energy by 2020

“We did letter writing, happy hours, tabling on campuses, art fairs, farmers’ markets and anywhere we knew where there were people,” said Alexis Boxer of the Sierra Club, which worked with a variety of clean-energy groups on the campaign.

Five interns staffed events throughout the summer in conjunction with club members who held house parties and meetings at other places, such as churches or work settings, she said.

“That’s a really great way to engage with communities and to reach more people,” Boxer said.

It wasn’t the first go-around for the Sierra Club on the issue, either — the group collected 11,000 signatures in 2013 to close Sherco.

But does grassroots activism help to close coal-fired power plants? “I think so,” she said. “In the last few years we’ve had tens of thousands of people weigh in on this issue, and that has to be important to the utility.”

Boxer points out that the petitioners are nearly all Xcel customers, which added a dollop of impact to the campaign. “I think you can say Xcel has been responsive and listening to the needs of their customers,” she said.

Drennen agrees that the utility heard the message.

“Sometimes it can feel like Xcel doesn’t listen to customers’ opinions, but we then we had a meeting with the utility and we heard it was very impactful,” she said.

On The Front Lines

Drennen said those with concerns about their efforts generally focused on what would happen to jobs if the plant closed. “I would say only 1 percent of the people were openly hostile,” she said.

Beth Mercer-Taylor, who lives in a St. Paul suburb, has a college-aged daughter who suffers from serious asthma. She and her daughter, Katie, held an inter-generational house party where attendees wrote letters calling for the plant’s closure.

Asthma sufferers like Katie, she said, deserve a state with cleaner air.

“She’s one of the kids who is effected by this,” said Mercer-Taylor, who works on sustainability education at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and serves on the Falcon Heights City Council. “She put so much time into it that it kept me going.”

Political activism extended to other parts of the state. Preeti Yonjon, a 28-year-old St. Cloud State University graduate student, worked with a group of fellow students and local activists for three years on capturing signatures and informing people about Sherco.

The personal encounters helped people understand the importance of closing Sherco’s two units, even if not everyone agreed. When people raised concerns, she said, it was generally about the potential job loss in their own backyard. Sherco is in a community closer to St. Cloud than St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The gerontology and social responsibility double major plans to employ what she learned when she returns to her home in Nepal sometime likely next year. The country faces huge issues with water rights, women’s rights and, of course, climate change.

“This was a new experience for me, and it was challenging and hard,” Yonjon said. “I learned a lot about the politics of climate change. It was a helpful journey.”

Due to an editing error, the original story did not include the full list of organizations that submitted petitions. It was the Sierra Club, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, Union of Concerned Scientists, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Clean Up our River Environment, Fresh Energy and Conservation Minnesota.

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.