Port: Great River Energy expected to announce intentions with North Dakota's largest coal plant next week
MINOT, N.D. — Coal Creek Station, near Underwood, is North Dakota's largest coal-fired power station.
It has two units, each rated at 550 megawatts, for a total maximum capacity of 1.1 gigawatts.
It provides jobs for a lot of people.
Hundreds at the plant itself, and hundreds more at the nearby Falkirk Mine, which is operated independently by a subsidiary of North American Coal but provides 100% of its output — about 7 to 8 million tons per year — to Coal Creek Station.
If you count the number of indirect jobs that rely on the commerce generated by all those plant workers and coal miners and their families, we're talking about a number in the thousands.
Earlier this year, Great River Energy, a Minnesota-based power generation and transmission company, announced that they were facing "economic challenges" and would be making a decision about Coal Creek's future sometime this year.
Multiple sources in various levels of government, as well as some sources in the energy industry, tell me they expect Great River to state their intentions at a meeting on May 6 of next week.
They believe the company will announce a search for a buyer for Coal Creek sometime in the next two years, while its existing contractual obligations to the regional power grid run out.
If no buyer is found, the facility would be shut down.
"It could be brought up," Great River spokesman Lyndon Anderson told me when I called him and asked about what I'd been hearing.
He refused to confirm or deny any details.
"Those are confidential meetings," he said. "They have meetings the first week of every month."
The wind industry's flacks and certain political commentators will tell you that coal's demise is inevitable because wind and natural gas work better.
It just ain't so.
On a level playing field, Coal Creek Station is one of the most efficient and reliable power plants in the nation. Coal is cheap and plentiful.
Its price is stable, unlike natural gas. Look at what's happening to the oil and gas industry right now.
Coal-fired power is reliable, unlike wind.
Unfortunately, we are not on a level playing field. Renewables such as wind have most-favored political status, enjoying massive subsidies and first-in-line privileges on the power grid.
How that is playing out in the Coal Creek situation, specifically, has everything to do with transmission capacity. Great River Energy owns a transmission line that runs from central North Dakota into Minnesota.
It was built in a different political era. Constructing a new transmission line to serve wind farms in western North Dakota would probably take the better part of a decade and a huge investment of capital in lobbying and regulatory proceedings and public relations before construction could even begin.
If it could be constructed at all; the politics around that sort of project are fraught.
If Coal Creek is gone, the line the plant is currently using becomes available for wind power.
Great River is under pressure from its Minnesota-based customers to rid itself of coal power. Minnesota's politics, particularly in the areas Great River serves, are very different from North Dakota's.
There is no small amount of ideological opposition to coal.
The North Dakota officials I spoke to were hopeful Great River would find a buyer, but just how motivated the company will be to sell the plant to a competitor, if it comes to that, is an open question.
In the meantime, thousands of jobs hang in the balance, not to mention the reliability of our regional power grid, and the price we all pay for electricity.
Government interference in the energy markets has incentivized a lot of short-term thinking as energy companies pursue profits from renewables, which are almost entirely the product of politics instead of market realities.
What happens when the subsidies and special treatment stops?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .