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North Dakota’s Coal Creek Station: A bright spot in the energy industry

The plant was acquired by Rainbow Energy Center in May 2022.

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Coal Creek Station is pictured in this photo provided by the North Dakota Lignite Council.
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Many things make America great, according to Al Christianson. In particular, he said, three things stand out: freedom, a vibrant working class and its energy industry.

“All of these things are possible because we have freedom,” he said. “We have a vibrant middle class, and the reason we have our middle class is because we have the energy.”

Of the latter, one of the top energy players is North Dakota, a state Christianson says will lead the charge in meeting modern challenges of being environmentally conscious while developing robust energy sources to serve the country.

“We've always been ahead of the world because of the energy we’ve had,” he said. “Nature gave us some great things, and capitalism has done good for us. … We're in the greatest place in the world – the United States – but North Dakota is going to lead the world on how to meet the challenges of energy.”

Honing that perspective, Christianson, director of business development and North Dakota government affairs at Great River Energy, spoke with Prairie Business about one of North Dakota’s energy bright spots – the Coal Creek Station – and something it is using – fly ash – to help both the environment and business.

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The plant was acquired by Rainbow Energy Center in May 2022. The purchase was first announced in June 2021.

“We are excited for what the future holds for the communities surrounding Coal Creek Station, which have been very supportive of the plant. We are proud of the good work of our North Dakota employees and know they will deliver for Rainbow just as well,” Great River Energy President and Chief Executive Officer David Saggau said in a news release announcing the change.

Rainbow Energy President Stacy L. Tschider said in June 2021 that Great River Energy has been “a fantastic partner throughout this process.”

“They have shown a strong commitment to their people and the region and this tradition will continue within our company,” Tschider said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum applauded the deal during his 2023 State of the State Address.

Coal Creek and Fly Ash

Coal Creek Station, built in the 1970s, is located between Underwood and Washburn and is North Dakota’s largest coal-fired power plant. It has two units, each rated at 550 megawatts.

But this iconic power plant does more for the economy than provide only energy.

Since about 1997 it has leveraged its use of fly ash, the residue left over from burned coal. That residue – “lightweight stuff,” as Christianson calls it – exits the top of boilers and is afterward collected, as it has been for almost three decades. It is then used as a product in cement.

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“A lot of people always thought of it as a waste product,” he said of fly ash.

Not so, however, and to prove the point Coal Creek makes around half a million tons annually that is sold for use in cement. That's removing 450,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, he said.

“On top of that, fly ash makes better concrete because of the spherical particles that make concrete stronger and last longer,” he said.

Christianson said it’s basically what the Romans used to give strength to their cities long ago. They used volcanic ash to strengthen cement products.

“After generating electricity, the resulting ash can be used for concrete and other applications, which not only provides additional income streams, but also reduces the material handling costs,” said Jason Bohrer, president and CEO of Lignite Energy Council. “We continue to develop emerging markets and opportunities to create additional value and sustain the lignite industry that is so important to North Dakota and our economy.”

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Coal Creek Station is pictured in this aerial photo provided by the North Dakota Lignite Council.

Looking ahead

Christianson said he is optimistic, even excited, about the future of energy in the Peace Garden State. Several other facilities will continue to have an impact not only in energy, but on the environment.

He believes one really can get the best of both worlds here – high and efficient energy production and a cleaner environment.

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“The next big challenge is carbon, because as you know people want to decarbonize; they think that's causing global warming. If you believe in global warming or climate change, whatever they call it, it's more about the fact that the challenge is real. It needs to be done,” he said. “North Dakota will lead the way on how to do this.”

Dakota Gas, located in Beulah, has been capturing carbon and sending it to Canada for enhanced oil recovery for decades, he said. Minnkota is working on Project Tundra, a large-scale facility that aims to capture carbon for storage. The Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks does much in the way of research to create and improve systems. He listed other projects, noting all of which ultimately help North Dakota enhance its energy and environmental efforts.

“Give the industry time and resources and it will meet every one of those challenges on the environmental side," Christianson said. "On the social side, if you look at what these companies do and how they do quality of life. I mean, we all like to turn our lights on. We all like the fact that these companies give back; their people live in these communities.

"I’m so proud of the industry, proud of what the state of North Dakota has done. You can't find a better business climate, a better research climate. … This is what the world should be looking at to make sure we all have the reliable and affordable electricity and energy that we need.”

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Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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