BISMARCK — The transmission lines criss-crossing North Dakota have become the rope in a tug of war over the state’s energy future as officials grapple with saving coal-fired power as utilities turn to wind.

The North Dakota Transmission Authority director is warning that the state’s power grid is full, because of regional bottlenecks, and Republican leaders in the Capitol have introduced a bill that critics say would make it difficult — or impossible — to add more wind farms in the state.

Concerns over the grid's capacity to handle more power generation have become central in discussions before the North Dakota Legislature as state officials are taking a fresh look at energy policy.

The complicated job of managing grid capacity is vital to ensuring that electricity gets to consumers, whose need for power spikes during frigid winter weather and summer heat waves. But with North Dakota’s primary driver of reliable, around-the-clock electricity on the wane, state officials have often raised the specter of California-style brownouts and the dangers of losing power in the harsh North Dakota cold as a looming threat if the grid forsakes coal for renewables.

At the center of the debate over the state grid's future is the uncertain fate of the 1,100-megawatt Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired plant, which is slated to close in late 2022 unless operators and state leaders can find a new owner.

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The Coal Creek Station power plant is seen Wednesday, May 13, near Underwood, N.D. Great River Energy has announced the plant is slated to close in 2022. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
The Coal Creek Station power plant is seen Wednesday, May 13, near Underwood, N.D. Great River Energy has announced the plant is slated to close in 2022. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

“Coal Creek Station is in danger of shutting down, and when that coal-fired plant shuts down, that means the start of the rest of them shutting down,” said Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, explaining the sudden urgency of grid operations to lawmakers this session. “If they're gone, and 15 years down the road wind and the renewables can't keep up, we're going to have blackouts, brownouts.”

The critical question for Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford is what it will take to maintain grid stability if the state’s baseload electricity supply from coal-fired power plants goes down. Coal plants provide stability, he said.

“They were built to run 24/7 and keep the same amount of power coming out,” Sanford said.

North Dakota is the sixth-largest energy-producing state and exports about half of the electricity it generates, with more than 60% coming from coal-fired plants concentrated near Bismarck and 27% from wind farms scattered around the state.

“It kind of snuck up on us so to speak,” John Weeda, the state’s transmission director, said of grid capacity concerns. “The professionals thought we’d be able to tweak a little bit here and there” and keep adding generation, principally more wind farms.

But the days of tweaking the grid may be numbered because of chokepoints in the regional transmission system — meaning significant expansion of wind power in North Dakota is stalled until solutions are found, he said.

These tensions fuel an unusual surge in coal-focused legislation on the table this legislative session, several of which boost coal at the expense of renewable power.

A conversation-driver—and the "lightning rod" of these proposals, in the words of its primary sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner—is Senate Bill 2313. In what would be a jolting change to the state’s grid regulation, the bill would require all renewable energy providers in the state to demonstrate, by December of next year, a threshold level of "firming"— contract agreements in place to guarantee back-up power. The agreements serve as a sort of insurance policy for when the wind isn't blowing.

Wind turbines as seen July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D. Forum file photo
Wind turbines as seen July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D. Forum file photo

While many wind farms are already firming on their own, Wardner noted that the bill would call for substantially higher levels of back up than most companies are doing voluntarily.

Both Wardner and Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who co-sponsored the bill, said they were not aware of any other state that has legally mandated backup for renewables. And though the bill hasn't appeared before committees yet, it has already drawn unyielding opposition from wind power groups and the state's investor-owned utilities.

Tony Clark, a former Fargo legislator and state and federal energy regulator who now advises the North Dakota wind industry, said the bill to add firming requirements could chase wind developers into other states.

“It erects this barrier with wind developers,” he said. “It really just drives investment somewhere else. It doesn’t solve the problem that I think they want to get at.”

The bill's sponsors are similarly frank. "There's pushback," said Wardner, who said late this week that lobbying from the wind and utilities groups has been so insistent that the bill's firming requirement — its central tenet — is likely to be cut completely, replaced with something softer like a firming recommendation or reporting requirement.

"Wind developers said, 'This will take us out of the state,'" Wardner said, adding that, while the current draft of the bill would certainly drive wind business out of North Dakota, "it's not quite as bad as they say."

Both investor-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives are against the bill. Instead, they favor a legislative package proposed by the Lignite Energy Council to support the coal industry, including a five-year state tax break, as a bridge until sustainable solutions can be found.

Carlee McLeod, president of Utility Shareholders of North Dakota, which represents investor-owned utilities, said the state’s grid is both adequate and reliable for the time being — and worries of rolling brownouts are baseless.

“We don’t have the concern because we know we have both resource adequacy and reliability,” she said. “We feel these fears at this moment are unfounded.”

Jeff Danielson, a policy advocate for American Clean Power and a former Iowa state senator, said he and other wind advocates support the “all of the above” strategy often touted in North Dakota, but argued that policies like legally-mandated firming and other wind-penalizing bills in front of lawmakers this session could undermine an inclusive energy strategy.

“When you isolate yourself as a state policy arbitrarily, then we’re going to caution against those types of decisions,” he said.

When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, renewables, intermittent suppliers of electricity, draw power straight off the grid. Backers of the firming policy say that this system has worked out but there is no guarantee it always will.

“That may not always happen,” warned Wardner. If the state relies too heavily on electricity from the grid at a high demand point, there may be a day when there’s nothing to draw on. “That’s when you have brownouts, and possibly blackouts,” he said.

North Dakota's electric grid

North Dakota’s wind farms operate, on average, 38% of the time and even a highly productive wind station is running 50% of the time. The fluctuations place demands on the grid, according to Weeda.

Maintaining electricity flow on the grid requires complex coordination between the transmission systems and a patchwork of regional transmission organizations. That task is more complicated in North Dakota because two different regional grid operators — Midwest Independent System Operators, or MISO, and Southwest Power Pool, or SPP — overlap within the state.

Minnesota cooperatives and utilities, big customers of energy produced in North Dakota that share the MISO system, have increasingly shunned “black electrons." But many SPP customers, including gas plants and other industrial customers in North Dakota's Oil Patch, want reliable power, Sanford said.

“They need to have a steady source of power,” he said. “They can’t have intermittent power.”

Congestion points in the connections between the two regional systems pose problems for North Dakota, Weeda said, and add costs in North Dakota and western Minnesota.

The question of who pays for transmission lines is complex, but they are mostly paid for by utilities that recover their costs from ratepayers, he said, so consumers have an interest in maintaining and expanding the grid.

It takes years to add new transmission lines — on average, seven years once a plan is completed — because of the required costs and regulatory permits, Weeda said. New power lines encounter stiff resistance from landowners who don’t want them crossing their property.

Power lines added only to serve wind power have a harder time recouping their costs than stable coal plants, which constantly run except for during maintenance interruptions, he said.

“That’s another challenge in front of us as we figure out how to expand the grid,” Weeda said. “It’s a very hot topic in the Legislature.”

Intermittency is overblown as a shortcoming of wind power in the view of John Dunlop, a renewable energy consultant in Minnesota.

Utilities have found that they can operate with wind power generated from multiple sources over a wide area for less than using coal power, which is driving the shift away from coal, Dunlop said.

He points to Great River Energy, the Minnesota-based power cooperative and owner of Coal Creek Station, as an example. Next year Great River Energy will offload Coal Creek Station and replace its generation with Minnesota Wind Farms, a move they can make because of the grid's efficiency, Dunlop said.

Still, Dunlop concedes that expanding the transmission system significantly poses a formidable challenge if the country is to switch from power generated from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind and solar power.

“Utilities finally are realizing they can integrate large quantities of intermittent power and do it much cheaper than coal,” he said. “Just like Coal Creek, they’re too expensive to run.”

The recently completed CapX2020 transmission initiative from a consortium of utilities including Xcel Energy, which includes a line running through eastern North Dakota to carry wind power to the Twin Cities, is already full, Dunlop said.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg to confront a major, major challenge to convert our whole system within the next 10 years,” as recommended by some climate experts. President Joe Biden seeks to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal Dunlop said will require massive transmission upgrades.

North Dakota’s grid is “well positioned for a strong, reliable future”, according to a recent study involving the Great Plains Energy Corridor at Bismarck State College.

The MISO system in the Upper Midwest now has a portfolio that is 8.6% renewable. When the MISO system’s renewable energy mix approaches 30% further study is needed to “confidently move to higher levels of renewable generation,” the study said. Wind power firming isn’t needed, according to the study.

The study of the grid's reliability in North Dakota didn’t address the regional system congestion that limits the state, Weeda said. He also noted that North Dakota’s renewable energy portfolio is already close to 30%, imposing limits on the grid.

For Wardner and many lawmakers, the state is already on the losing end of the national battle between renewables and fossil fuels. The priorities of big dollar investors have shifted towards green energy. North Dakota officials are searching for expensive solutions to the carbon output of the state's fossil fuel industries. Many hopes ride on ambitious plans like developing carbon capture technology.

"We've thrown in the flag. We're waving the flag," Wardner said.

Threats of brownouts and blackouts, he said, are still 15 or 20 years away. But winter weather like the wave of extreme cold that hit North Dakota this February, where temperatures regularly dipped into the negative teens, remain lawmakers' first selling point for propping up coal plants.

"This past week, thank goodness for coal," Wardner said. "Especially on some of those days where the wind didn't blow."