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McFeely: Report blasts expensive ND project meant to save coal plant

Project Tundra, an estimated $1.6 billion carbon capture proposal, is 'high risk' that will lead to higher electricity rates for customers, report says

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Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station, near Center, N.D., burns lignite coal to generate electricity for customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. In 2017, North Dakota coal-fired power plants produced 2.7 million tons of coal ash, which must be properly disposed of and monitored. Special to The Forum
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FARGO — A new report blasts North Dakota's Project Tundra, calling the proposal to capture carbon dioxide emissions at an aging coal-fired power plant in the state "high risk" and "a step in the wrong direction" while questioning its economic viability.

The report says customers of Minnkota Power Cooperative and Square Butte Electric Cooperative "may have to pay substantially higher rates for power" if the project is completed or fails before that.

"In sum, Project Tundra is a risk that the region's cooperative utilities and ratepayers simply cannot afford," the report concludes.

The 34-page report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a think tank whose stated mission is "to accelerate the transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy," was released Tuesday, Sept. 22.

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Some energy groups have criticized the IEFFA by saying it is funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a $900 million philanthropic foundation that has divested its assets from fossil fuels.

Project Tundra is a joint project by Minnkota Power Cooperative, the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center, the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the Lignite Energy Council to install a carbon capture system at the Milton R. Young Station power plant near Center, N.D.

It is also a pet project of North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, whose office has touted the U.S. Senator's hand in securing $43 million in federal funding for the proposal.

"The IEEFA paper is deeply flawed and misrepresents Project Tundra," Minnkota said in a statement. "Minnkota was never contacted by IEEFA to provide information or to clarify any of the project specifics."

Project Tundra's boosters say North Dakotas' coal plants and mines account for 14,000 jobs, $130 million in direct taxes and $5.7 billion in annual economic impact. Their interest in retrofitting the Milton Young plant with carbon-capture technology is to keep it alive for its jobs and economic impact.

Proponents say the captured CO2 would be sequestered deep underground or sold to companies in the Bakken Oil Patch for use in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

Coal, a shrinking source of American power for decades, is under increasing pressure over climate change concerns and its dropping economic viability as other energy becomes more prevalent and profitable.

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Minnesota-based Great River Energy will close North Dakota's massive Coal Creek Station coal-fired plant in 2022 unless a buyer can be found. The company cited financial losses and a desire to buy its power from wind sources.

RELATED:

  • Letter: Holy Grail or another boondoggle? If carbon sequestration is the “Holy Grail” for the coal industry, the lignite industry should put their money where their mouth is and finance this project. It should not pilfer our hard-earned tax dollars in a last ditch effort to rescue a failing industry.
  • Letter: ND will not be spared deadly effects of climate change Here are three: one, extreme heat; two, more frequent and intense floods and droughts; and three, destruction of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems.
  • McFeely: Will taxpayers be left out in the cold by Project Tundra?
  • Letter: Project Tundra demonstrates 'can-do' spirit Project Tundra is different from Petra Nova in that its financial model does not depend on oil prices or other market drivers. Instead, it uses the federal 45Q tax credit, which pays per ton for CO2 stored underground.

The IEFFA report hammers Project Tundra by citing five specific risks associated with it including cost, how much carbon dioxide will be captured, how it will be financed and the uneconomical future of the 43-year-old Young plant.
The report claims customers of Minnkota and Square Butte already have overpaid for their electricity produced by the Young plant, saying the huge price tag Project Tundra would only make the problem worse.

"Minnkota customers already have paid millions of dollars more for electricity from Young Unit 2 than necessary,’’ David Schlissel, the report's lead author, said in a news release. “Adding carbon capture to the plant is only going to raise its costs, and ratepayers and customers are likely to end up stuck with the bill for the whole risky venture.”

Supporters say Project Tundra's total cost will be between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, but the IEFFA believes those figures do "not appear to realistic" and "are extremely optimistic," comparing the North Dakota project to a much smaller one in Texas that cost about the same.

"The actual cost of retrofitting Young Unit 2 for CO2 capture could easily exceed the $1.6 billion high end of Minnkota's range," the report said.

The report questions whether private investors will be interested in purchasing the federal 45Q tax credits Project Tundra boosters say will cover its costs. It also says carbon-capture technology has not been proven to live up to its billing over extended periods.

"We remain confident that Project Tundra provides us with an opportunity to preserve a reliable and cost-effective asset for our members, while demonstrating leadership in emissions reduction," Minnkota said.

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The report cites the Petra Nova capture-capture project in Texas, which recently shuttered due to low oil prices after years of under-performing, as a cautionary tale.

"The Project Tundra proposal is a high-risk option that ignores past power plant experience with (carbon capture sequestration) technology and long-term trends in U.S. electricity markets that favor clean, cheap renewable energy and storage," the report said.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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