Sherburne County Generating Station: 380 workers operating 3 generating units that produce 2,255 megawatts of electricity (at maximum capacity) sitting on 4,500 acres of land along the banks of the Mississippi for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Largest point source of pollution in Minnesota. Largest source of employment for the town of Becker. And a monumental testament to the sheer scale of fossil fuel-based energy production in the United States.
Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to travel to and tour this facility with a group of young people who wanted to know more about where the electricity they use every day actually comes from. Coincidentally, my grandfather Harold Norgaarden served as engineering superintendent to the Sherco project when the first two units were built in the late sixties and early seventies. Basically, his life’s work had been turning this steaming behemoth from blueprints into reality – it’s how he brought home the bacon to my grandmother and her three sons, who lived in the shadow of Black Dog Generating Station in Burnsville, Minnesota. The salary and subsequent pension my grandfather earned from Northern States Power is what enabled my dad, the middle brother, to attend the college where he met my mother, and is what financially sustains my grandmother to this day. With this knowledge in mind – that I owe a great deal of the good things in my life to the construction of this power plant – I stepped out of the car and stared up at its towering chimneys before beginning our tour.
Prior to entering the actual facility, we were briefed with some background information in a comfortable room reserved for groups like ours. Two endearing Sherco retirees showed us slightly blurry graphs of data from 1976 to 1998 on a vintage slide projector; sealed jars of coal and ash dust were passed around (“finer than baby powder”); photocopied fact sheets bearing a thirteen-year-old copyright date were distributed; and the redemptive story of peregrine falcons returning from the brink of endangerment thanks to Xcel-sponsored nesting boxes was told before we donned our safety glasses, hard hats, and headphones. For the next hour, we walked through an overwhelming tangle of pipes and wires as our guide fed us a rapid stream of statistics.
Being inside of a power plant is full of extremes. Some regions are cold and windy (like exiting Unit 1 through its sole exterior door) while others are scorchingly hot (like looking through a small porthole into the boiler, where a wall of water pipes were the only thing standing between us and 3,000 degrees of coal-busting heat). The control rooms seem to be straight out of science-fiction, while tricycles are scattered throughout the facility for transporting toolboxes and spare parts. The entire structure trembles, as if struggling to contain the combustion occurring within, and emits a deafening roar at all times. Coal dust coats the floor and railings, and liquids can be found dripping and pooling all over the place. Towards the end of our tour, we walked along a platform overlooking the vast room that houses Unit 3’s steam-powered turbine, which broke down in 2011 after being pushed to full capacity. Repairs pending, it is scheduled to come back online this fall.
After the formal tour ended, we were able to access the depot where hopper cars full of coal from Wyoming and Montana are received and unloaded. One at a time, they are rotated 180˚ using hydraulic clamps and a rotary coupling system that dumps the coal into an underground repository. I had the privilege of pressing the button that activates this process, which repeats 120 times for each of the three trains that arrive per week. We were just exiting this depot and returning to our cars when a woman, one of the Xcel public relations employees who had accompanied us throughout the morning, said: “Remember, we keep your lights on!”
They keep our lights on. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly the problem. You keep our lights on, not us. In a monopolized utility system, we – the citizens of the Twin Cities – have very little control over how the energy we need to operate our modern lives gets to us. For the most part, we are reliant on (and apparently beholden to) a network of titanic generating stations like Sherco and Black Dog satisfying their insatiable hunger for the coal and oil found beneath our feet. Every time we flip a switch, we participate in this system, and it’s easy to argue that it’s doing us more harm than good. In order for us to move forward on energy, and achieve true energy independence (not the kind touted by coal and natural gas lobbies on television), we must begin to dismantle the things that keep us dependent on these outdated methods of production. One very relevant example is the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign. The city is now on the eve of renewing its 20-year franchise agreement with both Xcel (electricity) and CenterPoint (gas), a move that would lock Minneapolis into two more decades of dependence on the limited will of these two sizeable corporations. Without this heavy restriction, there would be much more room to cultivate clean, homegrown energy sources that can be implemented on a community scale, a system that is rooted in and can respond to the changing needs of its customers. Paired with significant improvements in energy efficiency and conservation practices, avoiding renewal would bring us one step closer to breaking the back of the fossil fuel industry.
I might not be here if it wasn’t for Sherburne County Generating Station. But it’s time to look forward. I believe my grandfather worked his whole life doing what he thought was best for his family – putting his skills to work on a job that supported them. If I want to do the same for mine, that will mean creating an energy production system that doesn’t require mining mountains for coal, filling ponds with ash, and spewing carbon into the air. It will mean critical thinking about my own consumption of electricity and doing what I can do to minimize what I use. It will mean capturing what the Earth gives us rather than extracting what it doesn’t. If anything, visiting Sherco reaffirmed this vision for me, and made it very clear how the industrial mindset of the 20th century is simply no longer feasible. Should Sherco be taken offline (not too far fetched given its current situation), sure, 380 jobs would be lost, but that loss could be more than reversed by the hundreds of jobs created in local, sustainable energy-related fields that promote resiliency. And if we can stop thinking in terms of loss and start looking at this challenge as an opportunity, I believe we’ll all benefit.