North Dakota has lots of coal. It also has strong and consistent winds. It might be the perfect spot to showcase the long-awaited "energy transition" from climate-warming fossil fuels to climate-saving renewables.
Yet that transition has hit a snag. Two counties in the state have enacted drastic restrictions on new wind projects in an attempt to save coal mining jobs, despite protests from landowners who'd like to rent their land to wind energy companies. It's a sign of how difficult that transition can be for communities that depend on coal for jobs and tax revenue. The economic benefits of wind power, even though substantial, often flow to different people.
The dispute erupted last year when Great River Energy, a rural electric cooperative based in Minnesota, announced that it planned to sell its Coal Creek Station, north of Bismarck, ND. If no buyer showed up, the company said it would shut the plant down in 2022. A coal mine that supplies the plant with fuel also would have to close. Roughly a thousand jobs would disappear.
"This has been a heart-breaking decision," said David Saggau, the company's CEO, speaking by video to the North Dakota Lignite Council, which represents North Dakota's mining industry. Yet Saggua told the miners that he had little choice, because the coal plant couldn't compete with cheaper electricity from other sources, mainly natural gas.
That step cut the company's losses, but it also opened up an intriguing new possibility. "We realized there was an opportunity right away," says Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, based in Minnesota.
The opportunity lay in a high-capacity transmission line that runs all the way from Coal Creek Station to Minneapolis. Closing Coal Creek would free up that line, sweeping aside one of the key roadblocks that have slowed the growth of wind energy in North Dakota.
"It's no secret that one of the barriers to development is a lack of transmission capacity to move the wind- or solar-produced electricity from where it's produced to where it needs to be used," Soholt says.
Great River Energy, in fact, wanted to build huge wind farms around Coal Creek — a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts — to take advantage of that transmission line.
That's when Ladd Erickson stepped in. He's the attorney for McClean County, North Dakota, where the coal plant is located, and he launched a battle over access to that power line. "The transmission line is everything," he says. "It's the golden goose."
Erickson wants to keep Coal Creek Station open, because it's a pillar of the local economy. Other political leaders in North Dakota do, too. They're looking for a company willing to buy the plant and keep it running. And in the meantime, they don't want wind companies claiming that transmission line. "Without a transmission line, there's no value in the plant," Erickson says.
Two counties next to Coal Creek Station moved quickly to keep wind companies from getting access to the line. McClean County adopted new rules that allowed the county to deny permits for feeder lines from new wind farms. Mercer County, next door, passed a two-year moratorium on new wind projects.
The new rules had a quick effect. Great River Energy dropped its plans for wind farms in North Dakota, and moved instead to build them in Minnesota, where wind power could take advantage of another set of transmission lines, which currently carry power from gas-burning plants.
But the county's efforts to shut down wind development provoked heated dissent from landowners who'd hoped to rent some of their land for wind energy development.
"I cussed that frickin' wind for 50 years," retired farmer Gary Scheid told the Mercer County commissioners at a meeting last July. "This is an opportunity to maybe cash in a little bit on that wind."
He told the commissioners that he was "shocked" by their moratorium. Representatives from the Laborers International Union also criticized the moratorium, arguing that it blocked potential new jobs.
Others, like Anna Novak, who's married to a miner, urged the county to keep up the fight to save coal power. "People are scared that they're going to lose their jobs, and that Hazen and Beulah will become ghost towns," she said. She pointed out that many of the landowners who support the wind projects and would profit from them don't even live nearby.
John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, says that he has been talking to several companies that are interested in buying the coal plant. Weeda, who previously worked for Great River Energy and supervised operations at Coal Creek Station, is optimistic that the plant will stay in operation. He says that the potential buyers would like to build an addition to the plant that would capture its carbon dioxide emissions. Previous attempts to deploy this technology, however, have not been profitable. NRG Energy, which currently operates the only facility in the U.S. that captures carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-burning power plant, recently announced that it will suspend operations at the plant.
Beth Soholt, from the Clean Grid Alliance, is skeptical that Coal Creek Station will survive. "If Great River River Energy, as good an operator as they are, couldn't make it economically feasible, I find it hard to believe that somebody else would. Long-term, it's not feasible to keep that plant open," she says. "We already have good wind and solar resources in the state. We have demand for clean energy. They need to capture the opportunity that's in front of them."
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