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Forum Editorial: Saving Coal Creek Station marks an important step toward a carbon-captured future

Coal Creek Station once seemed doomed to closure. Now it can help show the way to a future of reliable coal-fired power that captures carbon.

Editorial FSA
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Great River Energy’s announcement that it intended to close Coal Creek Station in the second half of 2022 was a dark day in North Dakota’s Coal Country. The 1,151-megawatt station near Underwood is the state’s largest coal-fired power plant.

Fortunately, as officials announced earlier this week, that didn’t happen. Coal Creek Station and nearby Falkirk Coal Mine, which supplies the plant with lignite coal, will keep operating — and their 650 workers will stay on the job.

A lot of work by a lot of people made the triumphant announcement possible.

Efforts to keep the plant open seemed like a long shot. Although Great River Energy left open the possibility of selling the plant as an alternative to closure, it said that the plant, which started generating electricity in 1979, was no longer financially viable.

But local and state leaders were unwilling to accept Coal Creek Station’s closure and quickly went to work.

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The North Dakota Legislature enacted a raft of bills to support the industry and the extremely expensive transition to a low-carbon future, made possible by technology that can capture and store carbon-dioxide.

Bills providing unprecedented support included a five year “tax holiday” for the industry worth more than $100 million, a $25 million grant program under the newly created Clean and Sustainable Energy Authority and a $250 million line of credit aimed at helping launch the $1.45 billion Project Tundra proposal by Minnkota Power Cooperative.

The white knight in shining armor that swooped in to buy Coal Creek Station is Rainbow Energy Center in Bismarck, a firm with energy marketing expertise.

In order to have a viable future, Coal Creek Station and Milton R. Young Station, the plant in the Project Tundra proposal, must overcome some daunting challenges. Carbon capture and storage from a coal-burning plant that is commercially viable has proved an elusive goal.

But it’s critical that we solve those difficult problems — and North Dakota is investing considerable public money and effort to make it happen here. The state is well suited for the challenge, with geological formations deep underground capable of storing the United States’ carbon output for 50 years.

As Gov. Doug Burgum has often said, North Dakota won the geology jackpot. Captured carbon dioxide can be used for enhanced oil recovery — as gas captured from the Dakota Gasification Plant near Beulah that has been piped 205 miles to oil fields in Saskatchewan has done for years.

To significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. will have to find ways to store carbon on a massive scale. Let’s remember, after all, that all those electric automobiles people are driving to feel virtuous often run on power generated at a plant burning coal.

The transition to a green energy future will take many years and investments of billions or likely trillions of dollars to achieve. This won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. It should be gradual and methodical enough that consumers aren’t hit by exorbitant energy bills.

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But we need to get going and make serious strides in tackling this challenge and creating a greener and smarter future.

Ambitious efforts in North Dakota like those at Coal Creek Station and Project Tundra will help lead the way. That’s a win that will carry far beyond North Dakota Coal Country.

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