North Dakota's quest to develop technology to capture carbon from coal plants

FARGO-North Dakota's abundant lignite coal reserves could provide power demand that is expected to eventually double in the Oil Patch-if researchers can succeed in capturing and storing carbon emitted from the fuel.The Lignite Energy Council, the...
Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton Young Station, located near Center, N.D., burns lignite coal to generate electricity for customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Minnkota is proposing Project Tundra, which would use advanced technology to capture carbon dioxide, which could be used to help pump oil from the ground in western North Dakota. Photo special to The Forum.

FARGO-North Dakota's abundant lignite coal reserves could provide power demand that is expected to eventually double in the Oil Patch-if researchers can succeed in capturing and storing carbon emitted from the fuel.

The Lignite Energy Council, the industry group, in partnership with the state, is supporting research initiatives aimed at devising methods of capturing carbon dioxide from the stacks of the state's lignite coal-fired power plants.

"We're looking at a five-generation play, so eventually we'll have to double capacity," said Mike Holmes, the Lignite Energy Council's vice president of research and development.

But, in order for a new coal plant to be built in the state, it will have to be capable of capturing and storing carbon, the goal of ongoing research, he said.

"We're looking at transformational, next-generation producers," Holmes said.

North Dakota, which has some of the world's largest lignite coal reserves, has a lot at stake in trying to solve the challenges of carbon to keep the industry viable.

The industry has invested $18 billion invested in the lignite coal industry, including power plants, which produce 75 percent of North Dakota's electricity, said Steve Van Dyke, the Lignite Energy Council's vice president for communications.

Lignite production has remained stable at about 30 million tons per year, though has dipped in recent years, partly because of wind power's increasing share, a sign of the pressures on coal.

The Lignite Energy Council and its state partner, the Lignite Research Council, a branch of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, have been pursuing "clean coal" technologies for years. The research is funded through the state coal severance tax.

Despite the state's budget crunch, interest in supporting clean coal technology was enough to increase research and development funding in the upcoming biennium to $20 million, said Stacey Dahl, external communications manager for MinnKota Power Cooperative, based in Grand Forks.

Also, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., helped add the initiative to the U.S. Department of Energy's priority list, but the project still must compete against rival projects for funding, she said.

MinnKota is pursuing Project Tundra, an ambitious initiative that would require state and federal sponsorship to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology for its Milton R. Young Station.

The project is seeking oil partners, who would use carbon in enhanced oil recovery to increase oil field production, typically in a mature well field. As envisioned, financial support for the project would increase to $1.1 billion by 2020-22, a timeline Dahl acknowledged is hopeful.

"This is really if the stars all align," she said. "That would probably be our optimistic case." MinnKota, which provides power to 11 distribution cooperatives in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, has invested almost $500 million to reduce emissions, resulting in wholesale electricity rate increases of 40 percent to 60 percent, she said.

That investment could be upended if the Clean Power Initiative, advanced by the Obama administration but tied up in court challenges, were to go into effect, she said. Finding a clean coal solution would protect that investment.

"Our highest goal is to achieve stability for our members," said Dahl, adding that many of MinnKota's end customers are industrial plants, including Digikey, Polaris and Arctic Cat.

If coal-fired electricity rates cannot compete, "We would lose industry," Holmes said.

Carbon dioxide captured from the Great Plains Synfuels plant near Beulah, N.D., is piped 200 miles north, where it is used to boost production at a Canadian oil field. That pipeline is equipped with six taps, which would allow transmission to various sites in North Dakota, Van Dyke said.

Commercially viable solutions are years away to find retrofit technology for North Dakota's existing fleet of power plants. The holy grail-a prospect further out in the future-would be to build a new plant with state-of-the-art carbon capture and storage capability, Holmes said.

It likely would take more than 10 years to come up with a plan for a next-generation coal plant, he said.

Extensive investments in emissions controls have made North Dakota's coal plants significantly cleaner over the past decade, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Health.

Mercury emissions were around 2,700 pounds in 2007, but had fallen to about 800 pounds by 2016. Emissions of sulfur dioxide, an acid rain pollutant, have decreased by more than 90,000 tons over the period, while nitrogen oxides have been reduced by more than 32,000 tons over the same time.