FARGO — The announcement that Coal Creek Station would shut down in 2022 sent shudders throughout North Dakota coal country — and sparked what wind energy advocates say is a misguided backlash against wind.
Coal Creek Station, a 1,151-megawatt power plant, and the nearby Falkirk Mine together provide 740 jobs, a number almost equal to the 778 people who live in Underwood, the McLean County town located near both.
The announcement from Great River Energy in May that it planned to close the power plant in late 2022 provoked a backlash from local governments at wind development, which many in coal country believe plays a key role for the decline of the coal industry.
In response, McLean County adopted a zoning change prohibiting new wind energy transmission lines — a move that effectively bans new wind farm power lines from accessing a substation at Coal Creek, and thus a Great River transmission line.
Great River was planning to invest $1.6 billion to build 800 megawatts of wind farms in the Coal Creek area to help compensate for closing the power plant.
Nearby, Mercer County passed a two-year moratorium on wind energy development, a move that threatens the 152-megawatt Garrison Butte Wind Farm, expected to create 150 construction jobs and generate millions of dollars in payments to landowners and local governments.
The backlash in coal country against the wind industry is both costly and misguided, according to a pro-wind group, North Dakotans for Comprehensive Energy Solutions.
“What’s happening to the coal industry is not based on decisions created by the wind industry,” said Bob Harms of the group, which represents the wind energy industry. “That’s an illusion.”
Coal country officials have said they're not against wind power, but said the economic benefits of wind can't begin to compare to the contributions, in jobs and tax revenues, to coal-fired power plants and the mines that supply them. Most jobs involving a wind farm come during construction.
"There will be a limited number of permanent jobs after the tower is up, if and when that happens," said Buster Langowski, the Mercer County economic development director. Wind farms need only four or five employees to operate. "That's not a lot of folks."
Several factors are driving the shift away from coal, Harms said, including the federal production tax credit for wind development and an abundance of cheap natural gas.
North Dakota’s Bakken Formation, for example, produces 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day — enough to generate 15,000 to 16,000 megawatts of electricity, or about double North Dakota’s electric generation capacity, according to a recent study by the North Dakota Legislative Council.
At least 121 coal-fired power plants in the United States have been replaced by or converted to other fuel sources since 2011, with 103 switching to natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal-fired electricity generation declined by 14.5% from 2014 to 2019, while gas-fired electricity increased by 11.4% and wind generation rose by 2%, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation,” a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded. Low-cost, abundant natural gas enabled by the shale revolution and the development of high-efficiency gas plants “resulted in a new baseload competitor to the existing coal, nuclear and hydroelectric plants,” the study said.
Blaming wind for coal’s troubles is misguided, Harms said.
“We’ve been telling people that’s a swing and a miss,” he said. “We’re not going to solve federal tax policy in Underwood.”
Mercer County’s wind development moratorium could cost the county $250 million to $300 million in investment and $20 million to $25 million in property taxes over the life of the project, he said.
McLean County lost $1.6 billion in investment from the 800-megawatts of wind energy development, in four 200-megawatt wind farms, and $100 million in landowner payments over 25 years, he said.
Electricity is sold in regional markets, where all forms of generation compete against each other. So if North Dakota blocks wind farms, they will simply go to other states, and North Dakota’s surviving coal plants will still have to compete against them, Harms said.
“So we have to be smart and solve our problems,” he said.
Ladd Erickson, the McLean County state's attorney and a local leader in efforts to save Coal Creek Station, said the claimed economic benefits of wind farms are misleading.
The vast majority of investment dollars for a wind farm go to turbine manufacturers, not the local community, he said. Also, most of those getting the lease payments — 75% or more — are absentee landowners, so the money doesn't help the local economy, Erickson said.
"Once you break it down, there's not a lot of there there," he said of wind energy economic benefits. "That doesn't mean it's bad."
North Dakota should embrace an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, allowing the coal and wind energy industries, and others, to coexist to meet the needs of consumers, Harms said.
“Wind energy is going to be a strong energy form in North Dakota,” he said. “How can we work together to grow the pie?”
North Dakota has more than 3,600 megawatts of wind power generation capacity, ranking it ninth in the U.S., and derives 27% of its electricity from wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wind farms pay landowners lease payments of more than $22 million per year.
The coal industry, largely coal-fired power plants and the mines that feed them, directly employs 3,623 in North Dakota and accounted for $5.4 billion of the state’s economic base in 2019, according to the Lignite Energy Council, which represents the industry.
Coal industry jobs pay some of the highest wages in the state. The average annual wage in Mercer County in 2019 was $71,447 and the average was $60,255 in McLean County, according to North Dakota Job Service figures. The statewide average was $54,103.
An omnibus budget bill passed by Congress renews the production tax credit for wind development for another year, a provision opposed by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. Both senators say the tax incentive unfairly advantages wind energy over coal-fired electricity and proposed instead tax incentives to support carbon capture and sequestration from coal plants.