MANDAN, N.D. — Montana-Dakota Utilities announced Tuesday, Feb. 19, it plans to retire Heskett Station near Mandan in 2021 and replace the coal-fired electric generation units with a new natural gas facility.

The Heskett Station, named for Montana-Dakota Utilities founder R.M. Heskett, employs 47 people and dates back to 1954.

Montana-Dakota Utilities, a subsidiary of MDU Resources, said in a news release the decision to retire the units followed an analysis of how the company could best provide safe, reliable and low-cost service to customers.

The company also will retire the Lewis & Clark Station at Sidney, Mont., around the end of 2020.

“The plants have served our customers well, providing low-cost energy for many years, operating roughly twice as long as expected when they were constructed in the mid-1950s and early 1960s,” Nicole Kivisto, president and CEO of Montana-Dakota, said in a statement. “The age of the plants, low-cost competition on the market and the ongoing cost to operate the plants all have contributed to the plants being too expensive to operate much longer.”

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The first coal-fired unit at Heskett went online north of Mandan in 1954 and the second unit in 1963, providing a combined 100 megawatts of power. The two units are projected to be retired at the end of 2021.

Montana-Dakota plans to construct a new 88-megawatt natural gas peaking unit at the Heskett Station, projected to come online as early as 2023, said spokesman Mark Hanson. The company anticipates filing a request with the North Dakota Public Service Commission this fall to outline why the project is the best option for customers.

The cost of building and operating the new natural gas facility, coupled with market purchases, is expected to be about half the total cost of continuing to run the Heskett and Lewis & Clark coal-fired units.

Montana-Dakota already has an 88-megawatt natural gas-fired unit at Heskett Station that came online in 2014.

Thirty people work for Lewis & Clark Station, for a combined 77 employees at the two locations.

Montana-Dakota estimates about 10 employees will be needed to operate natural gas-fired combustion units at the two sites.

The company also will offer employees retraining if they’re interested in jobs in other areas, Hanson said.

The Heskett Station consumes about 500,000 tons of lignite each year, supplied by the Dakota Westmoreland Corp. Beulah Mine, according to the company's website.

Randy Christmann, a member of the Public Service Commission, said he wasn’t surprised by the announcement.

“I hate to see these times come,” Christmann said. “I’ve long anticipated it because, frankly, for these older coal plants, it’s difficult for them to compete with the subsidized renewables.”