BISMARCK — The power grid failure that rocked Texas and triggered rolling blackouts in the Upper Midwest in February has continued to drive conversations among North Dakota's leaders about the state's role in the national transition toward cleaner energy.
For months, Texas' grid failures have been a flashpoint of debates over the future of the country's power grid. Many renewable energy advocates have noted the failures of natural gas infrastructure to perform during the cold, while fossil fuel defenders have argued that expansions of wind and solar in recent years have left Texas vulnerable.
In North Dakota, the grid failure hit during a legislative session that was already focused on preserving the coal industry, and many lawmakers and regulators argued for the importance of protecting the fossil fuel's place on the state electricity grid to prevent similar dangerous outages from happening here.
But the power grid debate has dovetailed with the start of President Joe Biden's climate-focused administration, and North Dakota leaders, regulators and grid operators at an energy summit in Fargo Tuesday, June 8, had wide-ranging discussions on how to preserve the state's core fossil fuel industries while adapting to environmental pressures coming from both the public and private sectors.
"I want everyone to understand that even though this (legislative) session was about coal — it was really about coal — making sure that we propped it up, and making sure that we were assisting and helping coal generation, we still believe in 'all of the above,'" Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told an audience at the event organized by the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber of Commerce. "Make no doubt about that. We want wind generation. We want solar generation."
The power grid crisis also came as the slated shutdown of North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant, Coal Creek Station, was already a rallying point for extending tax breaks to the coal sector. Though Coal Creek looks to be on the verge of getting rescued, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford asked a top regional power grid operator whether the grid could sustain the closure of the 1,100 megawatt facility.
Brian Tulloh, an Upper Midwest executive for Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), didn't directly address the implications of a Coal Creek closure but noted that renewables currently account for about 10% to 12% of the grid's footprint. He said that according to MISO's estimates, at about 30% renewable share the grid begins to see "significant stability issues" that need to be managed with additional energy storage and transmission lines.
"As you get up into the 50% range, those challenges become increasingly more expensive," he said. But he added that those challenges are surmountable. "With time and money you can solve just about anything. It's just time and money," he said.
North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak responded that the costs of those power grid upgrades cannot be discounted.
"That's not a small matter," she said. "What they're talking about — when it gets a lot more complicated at 50% — is, it's really serious and very expensive, to the tune of $500 billion to achieve what's been thrown out there as plans for the MISO territory."
Wardner and Tulloh stressed the importance of planning out a transmission line system that can accommodate inevitable changes to the power grid. Tulloh noted that the process of building a new high-voltage line typically takes around 15 years, meaning "we're already probably late" in getting started.
Former North Dakota and federal utilities regulator Tony Clark offered his own lessons from the Texas power grid failure, attributing significant issues to Texas' deregulated system and stressing the need to coordinate power demands with neighboring states. But Clark also argued for the importance of preserving on-demand power sources like natural gas and coal as backups for renewables.
"In that regard I think North Dakota and the Midwest are in an advantageous spot," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.