Marked for closure, North Dakota’s biggest coal-fired power plant looks for a new tech lifeline
Negotiations continue in the quest to find a new owner for North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant — an effort that faces a looming summer deadline for completion. If no new owner can be found, the plant will shut down in 2022, taking 740 jobs with it.
UNDERWOOD, N.D. — The fate of North Dakota’s largest coal-fired power station and the 740 jobs it supports should be decided in the next few months and any new ownership of the plant likely would involve pioneering technology.
Officials have been scrambling to find a new owner for Coal Creek Station, whose owner announced in May that it will shut down the 1,100-megawatt plant in the fall of 2022 if new ownership can’t be found.
Making the plant economically viable likely would involve adopting innovative technologies with possibilities including capturing carbon emissions, harnessing hydrogen from the lignite coal, or using new forms of electricity storage, said John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, who's been part of the state’s efforts to save the plant, which sits about 50 miles north of Bismarck.
Four or five prospective new owners have expressed interest in the Coal Creek Station site, and all are from companies that have a solid track record, he said. Many of the proposals, he added, hinge on emerging technologies.
“I’m optimistic,” Weeda said. “I know there have been bid submissions and there are discussions ongoing.”
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who has been spearheading the state's efforts to save Coal Creek Station, confirmed that multiple parties are expressing serious interest in taking over the plant.
“Due diligence and serious dialogue is ongoing with numerous legitimate prospects,” Sanford said.
Many have questioned how a new owner could make Coal Creek Station financially viable, given the struggles many coal-fired plants are facing because of climate concerns and competition from natural gas and wind.
“There are many opportunities that can be done,” said Weeda, a mechanical engineer and longtime manager at Great River Energy, which owns Coal Creek Station. “That’s why I’m optimistic.”
The North Dakota lignite industry has long been working to make carbon capture and storage economically viable, with a demonstration project called Project Tundra in development at the Milton Young Station, owned by Minnkota Power Cooperative.
If carbon dioxide could be captured, it could be stored underground — or it could be piped to an oil field in western North Dakota, where it could be used to help recover hard-to-reach oil deposits.
Another possibility would be to harness hydrogen from the coal, Weeda said. Hydrogen is a precursor to other chemicals and could be used to help move natural gas through pipelines by reducing the temperature, he said.
Yet another possibility involves using new methods of storing electricity, which would enable the plant to temporarily store power to sell it when prices are higher, improving profitability, Weeda said.
There is a proposal in Bismarck to allocate $65 million of the state's Legacy Fund earnings for research and development for North Dakota’s lignite industry, which could help commercialize the new technologies that could be instrumental in saving Coal Creek Station, he said.
“That’s an exciting possibility,” Weeda said.
Ladd Erickson, the state’s attorney for McLean County, where Coal Creek Station is located, has been involved in local efforts to save the plant. He’s also optimistic that a new owner can be found and believes emerging technologies would make it possible.
“We’re at a different place than we were in March and April,” when the prospects were much dimmer. Officials have been expressing optimism since October, and that has grown as talks continue, Erickson said.
“There’s a lot going on,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussions.”
North Dakota could become a showcase for new technologies to keep coal-fired electricity viable, which coal supporters say is crucial for maintaining reliable, affordable baseload power without the intermittency of wind, which isn’t always blowing.
“We’re like Silicon Valley in my mind,” Erickson said, referring to the research and development efforts underway and in discussion in North Dakota. “I’m thrilled that it might come out of North Dakota.”
Great River Energy, based in Maple Grove, Minn., is saying little about the possible outcome of negotiations, although a spokesman acknowledged that the cooperative is talking to “multiple interested parties” about Coal Creek Station and a high-voltage regional power line that serves the plant.
“Due to non-disclosure agreements we are unable to share any details about these discussions,” said Lyndon Anderson, a Great River Energy spokesman based in Bismarck. An announcement is expected by summer, he said.
The fate of Coal Creek Station faces a practical deadline. Assurances that the plant will remain connected to the power grid must be in hand by June, Weeda said. Without that in place, the plant’s days would be numbered.
“It starts the clock ticking toward shutdown once you make that request” to withdraw from the grid, he said.
Some reports have suggested some parties are more interested in the high-voltage line, which carries power to Minnesota, than Coal Creek Station. But Weeda, who managed the plant for years, believes Great River Energy would prefer to find a new owner for the plant — which would eliminate the huge cost of decommissioning the plant.
The plant has been well maintained and is one of the most efficient coal plants in the country, with many years of reliable service still possible, he said. “I know the value that’s there,” he said.
Also, Weeda said, the power line serving Coal Creek Station has capacity to carry power generated from another source, such as a large wind farm that Great River Energy once planned to help replace power from the coal plant.
“There’s going to be room on the line for renewables no matter what path forward the new owner would take,” he said. “It would open some possibilities.”