FARGO — North Dakota is all in on spending $1 billion of taxpayer-backed money on Project Tundra, a massive undertaking to retrofit an aging coal-burning power plant to capture carbon dioxide emissions and make it more environmentally friendly as the rest of the world moves toward green energy to stem climate change. North Dakota power players say the project is the holy grail of clean energy innovation. Most everybody else is beyond skeptical.
The skepticism, by the way, extends to the state-owned Bank of North Dakota (socialism!), which refused to put itself at risk as the lender for the $250 million in loans state lawmakers are handing to Project Tundra in hopes of saving several hundred coal jobs and the tax revenue that comes with mining.
Project Tundra has already secured about $50 million in federal funding and another $15 million from North Dakota.
And, according to an article posted recently at the website of S&P Global Market Intelligence — which bills itself as "a leading provider of financial and industry data, research, news and analytics to investment professionals, government agencies, corporations, and universities worldwide" — the backers of Project Tundra are also seeking $700 million in U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantees.
Also according to the article, which is a damning look at several carbon-capture projects underway, you can count the president and CEO of the nation's largest public utility as a carbon-capture skeptic. Jeffery Lyash leads the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies power for 10 million people in seven southern states, believes retrofitting new technology onto aging technology doesn't make sense. The TVA will retire its five remaining coal plants over the next 15 years.
"Carbon capture really is irrelevant for our existing coal fleet," Lyash said during the American Nuclear Society's annual meeting this month, according to the article. "Backfitting the technology to that old asset is not going to be cost-effective under any scenario."
The Milton R. Young Station near Center, N.D., which would be retrofitted with carbon-capture technology, went online in the 1970s. Three of the TVA plants that will be closed were built in the 1950s and one was commissioned in the late 1960s.
The plant's owner, Minnkota Power Cooperative of Grand Forks, continues to plow ahead with the backing of the state legislature, North Dakota's federal delegation (particularly U.S. Sen. John Hoeven), the Lignite Energy Council, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, and the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota (formerly called the Lignite Research Laboratory).
The state's largest media company, Forum Communications, recently distributed an editorial from its Grand Forks Herald property that deemed the estimated $1 billion-plus cost of Project Tundra as "worth the risk." (InForum is owned by Forum Communications.)
The S&P Global article is less sure. It follows a study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis that blasted Project Tundra, saying it was likely to have cost overruns from its estimated cost of $1.6 billion and that, aside from being a risk, was going to assure Minnkota customers would pay more for their electricity.
The S&P Global article opens:
Carbon capture at aging U.S. coal plants has always been a long shot financially, and the outlook for such projects appears to be dimming as private investors look elsewhere and federal support for the technology wanes under the Biden administration.
None of the five proposals to retrofit coal plants with carbon capture technology in the U.S. has secured funding to construct the scrubbers, carbon absorbers and geologic storage sites needed to begin operating. Some analysts also warn that costs could escalate, ultimately leaving ratepayers and taxpayers responsible for runaway expenses should projects be abandoned.
It says "... private funding for costly carbon capture projects is drying up as banks and equity firms adopt policies discouraging coal investments."
The article says "... neither the Project Tundra developers nor any of the other developers have made final decisions on whether to move forward with their projects, much less secured funding to break ground."
A Minnkota spokeswoman told Forum News Service the utility has so far drawn a high-level of interest from private investors and the project expects to move into its fundraising stage by late summer or early fall. Project Tundra expects to begin construction in 2022.
Those who support Project Tundra believe it will be a cutting-edge winner that will change the landscape for coal-fired power plants not only in North Dakota, but in the world. They are selling it as a way to save North Dakota jobs and help in the fight against a dangerously warming planet — which many North Dakota politicians deny is happening.
The rest of the world remains dubious, including all-important investors.