Larry Thomas, the city commission president in Washburn, North Dakota, has been in the community his entire life, barely 10 minutes down the road from the hulking smokestacks of Coal Creek Station.

Coal Creek is just one of a constellation of coal plants – and mines – that dot western North Dakota, all behemoths in their own right, all rumbling to the rhythm of the black rock that powers both the electrical grid and the day-to-day life of places like Washburn. Without them, the community wouldn’t be the same.

“It's huge,” Thomas said of the local coal industry. “There's a lot of people that live here that work for the power plant. A lot of people that work for them, and a lot of businesses rely on that industry as well. I know it would really hurt a lot of businesses if they were to shut down.”

But Coal Creek is on a political fault line that’s running through the energy industry, dividing coal and the future: Cheap natural gas and environmental regulations are slowly running old coal out of business. Coal Creek’s owners, the Minnesota-based Great River Energy, announced their intention to close the plant earlier this year as the company invests more in wind and natural gas power. White picket windmills now dot the rural landscape throughout the upper Midwest.

The communities of central North Dakota have known, for years, that change is in the air. Renewable energy, and especially wind, has blossomed across North Dakota in recent years. Nationwide wind energy production rose more than 300% from 2009 to 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Over the same time period, national coal output dropped 45%.

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Andy Buntrock, the director of strategic planning and communications for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, headquartered in Bismarck, pointed out that the company’s portfolio included about 11% renewables in 2000. In 2019, it rose to about 26% and continues to grow.

It’s not quite time to throw coal out, though, which makes up about half of Basin’s portfolio. Buntrock pointed out that coal stations are long-term assets that can still earn back value. And in any conversation about electric power there’s talk of the “base load” – being able to supply a steady stream of electrons to keep the lights on, even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. With today’s technology, that means coal and natural gas are a necessity.

There’s a degree of local politics to renewable projects, too. Washburn’s McLean County has been remarkably unreceptive to renewable projects, using zoning laws to block potential windmills earlier this year and has put a moratorium on solar projects as well. That’s perhaps no surprise, given the local interest in coal.

But Ladd Erickson, the McLean County state’s attorney, said it’s part of efforts to preserve the landscape for tourism and for coal mining; he’s previously described it as a deterrent to land speculators, too. It also represents the community’s faith in coal power, he said, which supplies the critical base-load power that renewables still can’t.

Erickson frames it up this way: the best way forward is with coal in the conversation, made clean with emerging technologies that drastically reduce coal plant emissions and, supported – not supplanted – by renewables. It’s a long shot that coal is profitable long-term, but he’s holding out hope that the right market shifts make it happen.

“The concept of replacing a viable lignite operation with renewables is a dead loser for North Dakota and the Midwest,” he argues.

Follow the Money

John Weeda is the president of the North Dakota Transmission Authority. He points out that the biggest roadblock to more wind energy in North Dakota is the power grid. It’s simply not developed enough to handle more big installations, and that means hopeful developers often face whopping costs for installation, discouraging more investment.

This is not just a North Dakota problem. South Dakota Wind Energy Association President Jennifer Stalley said it’s the biggest obstacle in her state, too. Bloomberg Businessweek summed up the problem neatly in late November, arguing that the energy of the future will run on exactly the kind of rural power lines that the prairie doesn’t yet have: “High-Voltage Power Lines Are Ugly, and the U.S. Needs More,” the headline read.

That’s part of the conversation around Coal Creek Station, too, because the power plant is linked to an enormous transmission line that’s also implicated in any future sale. Weeda said Great River has received offers for both the plant and the line and the transmission line by itself – a valuable piece of infrastructure that sends electricity to Minnesota.

That means the future could take Coal Creek and its power line almost anywhere, Weeda said. It could mean Coal Creek gets fit with new technology that makes it cleaner (not unlike MinnKota Power Cooperative is trying at nearby Milton R. Young Station, not far from Washburn and Coal Creek).

"I don't consider it a fork (in the road),” Weeda said of any future sale. “North Dakota is about all of the above. And I think as we evolve, we just evolve into what the market supports. The old saying — follow the money … Let's use our resources to the best possible (ends). It's going to be a combination of things."

A spokesperson for Great River Energy declined to comment on any potential sale, citing non-disclosure agreements.

And despite the McLean County state’s attorney’s pessimism, there’s ongoing research on technologies that could make renewables more viable soon, say experts at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. Tom Erickson, who oversees the exploratory research at the institute, and Brad Stevens, a senior research engineer spoke at length about the future of energy – especially wind – in a November interview. They pointed out that high-tech battery research continues to evolve. That’s the kind of new technology that could render coal’s base-load power argument moot.

Whatever the future brings, Thomas isn’t concerned. There’s been rumblings for months that the plant has interested buyers, and that means the proverbial show probably goes on – at least for now

“I think there are some people around that really hate wind, just for the fact that it takes away their coal jobs,” Thomas said. “But as far as I’m concerned, we need all types of energy.”