Nearly five months after Great River Energy announced it plans to close Coal Creek Station, it’s unknown who will make use of the transmission line that extends from the power plant to Minnesota.
The high-voltage direct current line, which underwent a $130 million upgrade in recent years, is a major piece of infrastructure on par with the scale of the Dakota Access Pipeline, said John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, which is an arm of the state’s Industrial Commission.
The line was first built 40 years ago. In 2019, 43% of the electricity exported from North Dakota went across its wires.
“The line is very important to future energy production in North Dakota, no matter what the source,” Weeda said. “There are a lot of us who hope there’s a buyer for Coal Creek and that at least a portion of (what travels across the line) will still come from Coal Creek. Most likely, the future will include other forms of generation as well.”
Energy companies, including wind and solar developers, have expressed interest in building projects that connect to the line, though they will face a challenge navigating the politics of coal country as counties in the region put up roadblocks to renewables.
The latest development occurred in early August when commissioners in McLean County, where Coal Creek is located, enacted a two-year moratorium on solar farms. That follows a similar moratorium in neighboring Mercer County on applications for wind farm permits, as well as McLean’s decision in March to enact zoning restrictions on wind farms and their power lines.
Great River Energy, meanwhile, has identified three scenarios for how the line could be operated in the future.
The Minnesota-based power cooperative could continue to own it and allow a variety of generation facilities to connect to it, including Coal Creek if a new owner emerges, wind farms, solar farms or other sources of electricity.
The co-op is also considering turning over control of the power line to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees the power grid in the middle of the country, including in parts of North Dakota.
GRE, lastly, could sell the power line and Coal Creek. When the co-op announced in May that it planned to close the plant in 2022, the co-op said it had essentially sought to give the facility away rather than shutter it, but it couldn’t find another company interested in operating it. The facility has run at a loss amid market challenges, as it faces competition from natural gas and renewable energy.
Coal Creek is the largest coal-fired power plant in North Dakota with a 1,100-megawatt output. GRE had planned to replace it with 800 megawatts of new wind farms in the area until McLean County in March changed its zoning rules to put additional restrictions on wind development. The co-op is moving those wind projects to Minnesota and South Dakota.
“Prior to that frankly, we had expected to fully use this HVDC line with new power that would be generated in North Dakota,” said Priti Patel, vice president of transmission for GRE. “In the last couple months we have really been researching and evaluating some of these options.”
GRE’s effort to find a future for the transmission line has involved talks with a variety of entities.
“We are in the middle of exploratory discussions with a number of potential buyers, as well as developers,” Patel said.
Weeda, who used to work for GRE, has talked with the co-op and others about the future of the line. The state Industrial Commission authorized his office to enter into a confidentiality agreement earlier this year with GRE to further the conversation.
“I’m optimistic that there will be a future owner of Coal Creek and that they will be utilizing the line for a variety of sources,” he said.
One option for Coal Creek is for a new owner to build a system at the facility to capture its carbon emissions and store them underground, potentially taking advantage of a federal tax credit for the technology.
Such a project would be a major undertaking and expense, and it would use approximately 30% of the power plant’s electric output, Weeda said.
Regardless of whether carbon capture comes to fruition under a new owner or if the plant shuts down, either scenario frees up space on the transmission line. Securing transmission is highly coveted by companies developing new generation projects, such as wind farms.
“Generation and the grid in North Dakota are currently quite well-balanced,” Weeda said. “Unfortunately, there’s virtually no room for growth. If you add generation in North Dakota, you are kind of displacing some other kind of generation.”
MISO recently informed a developer seeking to build a wind farm in Ward and McLean counties that the project would require $500 million in grid upgrades. While not all developers face such sticker shock with other projects in North Dakota, they too must cope with transmission “congestion.”
“Because there is not enough transmission in North Dakota, they are unable to get on the transmission grid in a cost-effective manner,” Patel said.
The line that begins at Coal Creek presents an opportunity for various developers to build projects in McLean and surrounding counties.
“There are most definitely cost-effective options here to get onto the HVDC system,” Patel said.
McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson is among those who have led the pushback to building more renewables in coal country.
Lately, he’s heard from a number of landowners approached by wind and solar developers about leasing up land for future projects.
“There’s just this sort of California gold rush to lease up what people can,” he said. “Those unknowns about Coal Creek and the power line are what’s creating the feeding frenzy with leasing.”
One prominent landowner he has spoken to was offered six different leases in July alone.
Erickson said he’s concerned that not all lease offers are from reputable companies, and that property owners could get their land tied up in a project that never materializes.
Some of the land is also in an area that could potentially be mined for coal or used for a carbon capture and storage project, he said.
Regardless, any renewable projects are still years from being built, he said.
“There won’t be any renewables until the Coal Creek issues are resolved,” he said. “That needs to be done first.”
That’s the context under which the county commission enacted the solar moratorium.
The ban does not affect families interested in installing rooftop solar panels, Erickson said. Rather, it applies only to solar farms, which hardly exist in North Dakota. A solar farm on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is the largest in the state at 300 kilowatts, a far cry from Geronimo Energy’s 200-megawatt solar farm slated for Cass County, which was permitted by state regulators last year but has not been built.
While no one has sought permits yet for a solar farm in North Dakota’s coal country, one company has been actively trying to develop a new wind project in Mercer County, where commissioners passed the moratorium on wind farm permits earlier this year, saying they wanted more time to study the impact of wind development in the region.
The moratorium affects Capital Power’s proposed Garrison Butte wind farm north of Hazen and Stanton. The facility would not hook up to the grid at the Coal Creek interconnection; rather, it would tie in at GRE’s interconnection where the now-shuttered Stanton Station once stood.
The company seeks to develop wind projects that will allow landowners to diversify their property, contribute taxes and meet the increasing market demand for wind power, said Jon Sohn, U.S. director of government relations for Capital Power.
“To do all that, we need certainty on transmission and we need signals that we’re open for business in North Dakota, not creating a short-sighted moratorium,” he said.
The company is continuing “to work in good faith to come to an agreement with the county that enables our project to go forward and creates benefit for local landowners,” he said.
Patel said recent county decisions targeting renewables “won’t keep Coal Creek Station operating,” as GRE’s decision to shut down the plant was based on the economics of the facility.
The co-op continues to work with state officials and others to try to make sure the line is available for use by any potential energy source, she said.
“To the extent those moratoriums are restricting sources, that simply hinders so many of the benefits to North Dakota and the use of the line,” she said.
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