Great Lakes Renewable Energy
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Great Lakes Renewable Energy
The Port of Duluth-Superior is one of the largest ports in the United States, an economic engine known for shipping iron ore mined in northeastern Minnesota to the steel mills of the Midwest. However, its second largest commodity is less well-known and located closer to Minnesota and Wisconsin: coal.
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For decades since the 1970s, the port has primarily been a heavyweight for fuel shipped to the Great Lakes region. At its peak in 2008, about 20 million tons of coal were transported through the dual ports, and only 16 million tons of iron ore were transported in a year.
“The Port of Duluth-Superior began with lumber in the 19th century and turned to iron ore and coal in the late 18th century,” said port spokesman Jason Hron of the Duluth Seaport Authority.
However, iron ore has been growing recently, while coal is a very different story. Shipments have decreased since 2008. stable. Although coal is still the port’s second most important commodity, shippers carried more of it in 1987 than in 2018.
The Twin Ports now look to a future with much less coal. While it’s celebrated by environmentalists, it creates an economic “hope” across the region, said Richard Stewart, Ph.D., director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics Research at the University of Wisconsin, Superior.
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“It has an economic impact on the shipping company, it has an economic impact on the mariners who operate the vessels, it has an economic impact on the Great Lakes shipyards, it has an economic impact on the Great Lakes shipping suppliers,” Stewart said. “Decreasing coal transportation will have an economic impact on the upper city, as taxes will be collected from it,” he said.
Until the 1970s, the Port of Duluth-Superior was primarily a coal importer, Stewart said. Anthracite coal mined in places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia was shipped across the Great Lakes for power and transportation.
Coal tonnage fluctuated from 5 million tons to 12 million tons between 1910 and 1950, and it declined until the 1970s, when the market for sulfur fuel declined. In 1973, data from the State Port Authority showed that coal was 62,000 tons short.
But over time, an alternative, clean-burning fuel source emerged that transformed the port: bituminous coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. This coal is transported by rail from the West, where much of it is brought to the Port of Duluth-Superior and sent to power plants around the Great Lakes. In 1987, the port again transported more than 10 million tons of coal per year.
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Since the 1970s, most of the port’s coal shipments have come through the Superior Terminal, which is operated by Midwest Energy Resources Company, or MERC, Michigan’s DTE Energy and its electric utility subsidiary.
After MERC opened in 1976, coal began to rise in Duluth Superior Harbor and slowly increased until it peaked in 2008. MERC’s website says the company is the largest coal shipper in the Great Lakes Basin.
However, since 2008, MERC’s cargo traffic has slowed down. Port data shows that only 8 million tons of coal passed through the port in 2019, less than half a ton from a decade ago. MERC’s data shows a similar decline.
This decline reflects a change in the country’s energy supply over the past 10 years. Cheaper natural gas is developing, offering power with lower carbon emissions potential than coal. And as climate change worsens around the world, utilities are investing in wind and solar power to quickly increase clean energy.
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One of MERC’s customers was the Taconite Harbor coal-fired power plant on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. One unit at the plant was shut down in 2015, and the other two units were shut down by Duluth-based Minnesota Power in 2016, at the same time a large wind farm was built in North Dakota. In 2005, Minnesota Power was 95 percent coal-fired. The energy supplier now plans to source half of its energy from renewable sources by 2021.
Another important MERC customer was the Nanticoke Generating Station on Lake Erie, Ontario. Before the largest coal-fired power plant in North America closed in 2013, the site is now a modest-sized solar farm.
Even the boss of MERS drops coal. DTE Energy plans to close three coal-fired power plants by 2022 and another by 2030, and phase out coal entirely from its utility portfolio by 2040. In September, the company pledged to make its electricity supply carbon neutral by 2050. Norcia declared that it is “right for our customers, our business and the environment”.
“We are doing everything we can to provide our customers and the state of Michigan with affordable and reliable clean energy,” Norcia said in a press release at the time.
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While some ports that transport coal to Europe and Asia have recently increased exports, domestic coal shipments across the country have decreased as coal consumption has decreased. The industry’s troubles led to the bankruptcy of coal mining companies in the resource-rich Powder River Basin, where MERC gets its coal.
DTE Energy’s vision for MERC’s future is unclear. The company declined multiple interviews and did not respond to MinnPost’s questions about the slowdown in coal shipments. DTE also declined to provide basic information about terminal operations. In an email, spokeswoman Renee McClelland said the impact of closing its coal plants on MERC and its employees is “speculative at this time.”
Stewart, a UW associate professor, did not predict MERC was in danger of closing. He said the company could still secure long-term contracts that would keep him going. And many power companies plan to use coal for decades because it’s a reliable form of electricity generation, he said.
Still, demand for coal could change depending on the pace of clean energy technologies and the cost of renewables, Stewart said.
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Public documents indicate that MERC remains a valuable asset to DTE. The company told Michigan regulators last year that the utility continues to sell coal and delivery services to third parties, resulting in lower electricity prices for customers. It also ships coal and petroleum coke, much of it from the Powder River Basin, through the MERC for use in its power plants, “reducing the cost of supplying coal at significantly below market rates.”
Coal depletion will have a significant impact on the region. MERC had 92 employees in 2018, which is “on the high side” of any terminal at the port, Duluth Seaport Authority spokesman Chron said. In total, there are 2,800 jobs directly supported by the port. CN Duluth Dock and BNSFW Railway Dock 5, two major iron ore and taconite terminals, have about 130 employees.
Stewart said a company with as many employees as MERC is a valuable place to work in Superior, a city of 26,000. Coal transportation also increases other industries and local taxes.
MERC has also been “a great community partner for decades,” Stewart said, to reduce air pollution, clean water at the treatment plant and connect with the city to support everything from youth sports teams to UW Superior programs.
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However, Lord Mayor Jim Payne said he was “not too concerned” by the drop in deliveries, which signaled “the end of this cold dock”.
“We are all very concerned about the impact of the climate crisis here,” he said. “Not to mention the overall quality of life and overall environmental protection.
“The idea of de-coaling the energy sector is good for us for a number of reasons.”
According to Payne, the MERC has not had a major impact on the city’s economy, especially with increased automation at the port. When it comes to organized labor, Superior’s economy is more driven by carpenters, plumbers, teachers and nurses, Payne said. “The closing of (MERC) will affect some people’s lives, but not the dramatic impact it had a hundred years ago,” Payne said.
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And unlike iron ore, coal isn’t mined in Wisconsin or Minnesota, limiting the overall potential impact, Payne said. “It’s mining, it’s not shipping,” he said of taconite’s impact on the region’s economy. “Shipping is a big part, but transportation is also not a relatively labor-intensive process.”
Payne also said that the decline in coal does not mean that people will lose their jobs. Dock can be converted into other commodities and he considers it a developed industry, even if it is not coal.
Jeff Stollenwerk, Director of Government and Environment
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