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Port: Coal Creek Station sale a victory for reality over politics

The Coal Creek deal represents a new and better approach to energy policy, which recognizes the need for change, while simultaneously preserving what's already working.

PHOTO: Coal Creek Station
Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant.
Contributed / Great River Energy

MINOT, N.D. — Regulators in Minnesota have cleared the last regulatory hurdle standing in the way of the sale of Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant.

The state's Public Utilities Commission, eschewing demands from political activists to nix the sale, instead cast a unanimous 5-0 vote to approve it .

That's a remarkable turnaround.

We went from Great River Energy announcing, in the spring of 2020 , that they'd be closing the plant and replacing it with wind energy to the company agreeing to purchase coal-fired energy from the plant for the next two decades.

Not as much coal power as before, to be sure. The sale includes a transmission line from the plant into the Minnesota energy market, and part of the deal allows for up to 400 megawatts of wind power to hit that transmission line in the future, but still.

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This is a win.

A dump truck carrying coal drives through the Falkirk Mine near the Coal Creek Station, a power plant near Underwood, N.D., Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. John Hageman / Forum News Service
A dump truck carrying coal drives through the Falkirk Mine near the Coal Creek Station, a power plant near Underwood, N.D., Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. John Hageman / Forum News Service

“This approval is a momentous step toward Rainbow Energy taking ownership of Coal Creek Station and providing a long-term future for the power plant, its workers and the communities supported by the hundreds of jobs at Coal Creek and the nearby Falkirk Mine,” Gov. Doug Burgum said in a news release reacting to the news, but this is more than just a parochial victory for jobs and economic well-being in central North Dakota.

This is a victory for reality over politics.

“Though I would like to demand that all that energy be renewable from North Dakota, I also am accepting reality today,” PUC Commissioner John Tuma said of his vote to approve the sale.

The reality is that the economic headwinds coal has faced are the result not of real-world market changes but politicians putting their fingers on the scale in favor of renewables.

Subsidies.

Mandates.

You know what I'm talking about.

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This has gone on for decades, and as usually happens when the politicians get involved to try and force a specific outcome, we're paying for the manipulation with higher energy prices and shortages.

Renewable energy is not baseload energy, nor is it particularly cheap energy absent the massive government production subsidies the renewables industry claims it doesn't need but keep magically getting renewed by the politicians year after year.

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(For those of you eager to trot out that old saw about subsidies for the coal industry, keep in mind that there are no production subsidies for coal power.)

To live in real world, and not the fantasy land politicians and lobbyists and activists operate in, is to understand that we still need coal power to live the sort of lives we've come to expect.

We're going to need coal power for decades into the future.

Given that reality, we may as well get busy making coal the cleanest source of energy it can be, because the deleterious impact of coal plant emissions on our environment are real too.

Which is another reason why the Coal Creek deal is important. Not only does it keep entire communities alive in central North Dakota, and not only does it keep desperately needed baseload power on our energy grid, but it will soon be home to yet another example of North Dakota's burgeoning carbon capture industry.

The deal "also offers North Dakota the opportunity to further prove that we can be a national and world leader in carbon capture, storage and utilization through our continued focus on innovation over regulation," Burgum said in his release.

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Rainbow Energy, the new owners of Coal Creek Station, plan to use about a third of the plant's output to power a $1.5 billion investment in carbon capture technology.

For a long time, the approach preferred by strident activists and politicians was to use heavy-handed regulations, and massively expensive subsidies, to kill the coal industry so that it could be replaced by energy sources that simply weren't ready.

The Coal Creek deal represents a new and better approach to energy policy, which recognizes the need for change, while simultaneously preserving what's already working.

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