Potential buyers could revive N.D.’s largest coal plant

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A North Dakota official said two potential buyers have expressed interest in purchasing the state’s largest coal-fired power plant, Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station, which is set to close in two years.

John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, told members of a legislative committee yesterday that buyers are interested in continuing to run the plant’s two coal units as well as an associated transmission line. Others are interested solely in the transmission line.

Minnesota-based Great River Energy announced May 7 that it planned to close the 1,151-megawatt Coal Creek plant in the second half of 2022 because it is struggling to compete in a wholesale power market where prices have been suppressed by flat demand, cheap shale gas and increasing penetration of renewable energy (Energywire, May 8).

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R); Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, both North Dakota Republicans; and various state officials have pledged their help in keeping Coal Creek and an adjacent lignite mine running, potentially with the help of tax credits to make carbon capture and storage more economically viable.

Political pressure to keep the plant running goes beyond the 260 people employed there as well as the hundreds more jobs at the lignite mine that supplies Coal Creek with fuel. Coal Creek plant has advantages because of its scale, its location northwest of Minnesota’s Twin Cities and political support that other coal-fired plants don’t have. Still, its future is in doubt.

Weeda described Coal Creek’s cloudy future as “the elephant in the room.” But he suggested there’s significant interest in the plant and a high-voltage direct-current transmission line that runs from the plant to the Twin Cities suburbs (Energywire, July 24).

“There are at least two entities that are very serious about buying the power plant and the transmission line,” said Weeda, who oversaw the plant for Great River Energy from 1989 until his retirement from the cooperative in 2018.

Weeda said potential buyers are evaluating Coal Creek with an eye toward making $2 billion worth of “enhancements” that could include carbon capture technology or battery storage that could be paired with wind energy.

Potential buyers are also looking at offering different “products,” such as low-carbon or carbon-free electric generation, that would be of interest to customers in Minnesota, a state with a goal to slash carbon emissions.

At least four other entities are seeking to buy only the DC power line to use it for wind energy.

“They’re big enough entities that they could probably write the check,” Weeda said.

David Saggau, CEO of Great River Energy, last week told members of North Dakota’s Lignite Energy Council that the cooperative is willing to give away Coal Creek “for a dollar,” according to the Bismarck Tribune. But so far, it hasn’t found any takers.

Therese LaCanne, a Great River Energy spokeswoman, said yesterday that the cooperative continues to provide information about the plant and transmission line to interested parties. But, she added, “we have not received any offers.”

While Great River Energy has announced its intention to close Coal Creek unless a buyer can be found, the cooperative insists the 436-mile DC line will continue to be used, somehow, especially given increasing transmission congestion in the Upper Midwest.

Great River Energy invested $130 million to refurbish the line in 2018 and is studying options for possible future uses, including allowing other power plants to interconnect with it; turning over control to the regional grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator; or selling it.