MINOT, N.D. — Despite being a relatively tiny island nation, Japan has the world's third-largest economy, behind only the United States and China.

They're also leaning into coal-fired power in a big way.

Yes, you read that right.

Not solar panels. Not wind turbines. Coal.

Vox reports that Japan plans to build 22 new coal-fired power plants in the next five years.

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To put that into perspective, the United States, home to the world's largest reserves of coal, is going the opposite way. One tiny coal-fired power plant was built in Alaska in 2019. The last one built before that was in 2015.

More coal plants here are closing than opening.

Even North Dakota's coal industry, known for its highly efficient mines and plants, hasn't escaped that trend. MDU Resources Group is in the process of closing down its Heskett Plant in Mandan. Great River Energy closed down Stanton Station in Mercer County, and they've also announced financial difficulties at their Coal Creek Station plant, served by the Falkirk Mine north of Bismarck.

A decision about the future of that facility is expected this year.

In the interim, workers in North Dakota coal country are worried, as evidenced by groups such as the Faces of North Dakota Coal on Facebook.

What does Japan know about coal that we don't?

It's not that Japan has significant coal reserves. That nation has thrived despite its home island being relatively barren of natural resources. What's driving Japan's choice is the reliability and safety of coal.

"As a resource-poor island country, Japan relies on imports for more than 90 percent of its energy, so the government is concerned with securing reliable sources of fuel," Vox reports. "Coal that Japan buys from regional allies gives some parts of the government peace of mind."

Shouldn't coal be giving America peace of mind, too? Our coal resources are vast. We have centuries worth of supply. Coal's cost is stable. Its energy production is entirely predictable.

Coal's decline is rooted in politics, not economics. Our various levels of government, lobbied heavily by the renewable energy industry and environmental activists, have put their fingers on the scale of the energy markets.

In our region, that mostly means wind, which not only enjoys a massive production subsidy (which was somehow magically renewed late last year though nobody seems to know how it happened) but most-favored status on our electrical grid.

When the wind is blowing, the wind companies get to sell all their power onto the grid first. Other sources, like coal and nuclear, have to sit at the back of the bus and eat table scraps.

They're also expected to be ready to produce all the energy the grid needs when the wind isn't blowing, which is a hell of a thing.

Many will tell you that coal can't compete in today's energy markets, but that's not true. Coal can't compete when it's hamstrung by policies favoring other sources of energy.

This is folly, all the more because we have a long history of improving coal. Year after year, the industry has used research and development to improve things like sulfur emissions. Currently, the big concern is carbon, but even solutions for that are in the offing.

Everything from carbon capture to the use of nanoparticles to turn emissions into fuels is on the table. We're getting there.

But none of that will matter if, by the time we're able to make coal better, the coal plants are closed.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.