In North Dakota coal country, officials rally to save a coal-fired power plant at renewable energy’s expense.
Coal Creek Station had lost $170 million in 2019 as abundant natural gas and proliferating wind projects had cut revenue far below what it cost to run the plant. After four decades sending electricity over the border to Minnesota, Coal Creek would be closing in 2022, Saggau said, and nobody was clamoring to buy it.
“We made folks aware that the plant was for sale for a dollar,” Saggau, of Great River Energy, told the Lignite Energy Council during an October 2020 virtual meeting. “We’re basically giving it away.”
A renewable future was at hand. Winds come howling over the Missouri River in the heart of North Dakota — at the site where Lewis and Clark spent their first frigid winter — and Great River Energy planned to supply wind power over Coal Creek’s valuable transmission line. NextEra Energy, EDF Renewables and other powerhouse firms were racing to lock landowners into leases to harvest some of the most powerful and sustained winds in the country.
But that new clean-energy future never materialized in this part of coal country, with a landscape that has been mined for more than a century and has the scars and sinkholes to prove it. And the sale of Coal Creek Station, which received its last major permit approval earlier this month, illuminates the United States’ halting transition to renewables. Even in places such as North Dakota, where supply and demand align with clean energy, culture and politics pose major obstacles.
In these rural North Dakota counties, local officials passed ordinances that blocked wind and solar projects. State officials rallied to save Coal Creek, and a politically connected North Dakota energy firm stepped in to prolong its life, promising someday to capture its carbon emissions and store them underground.
“I’m not just looking to prop up coal,” Stacy Tschider, the president of Rainbow Energy Marketing Corp., said in July when his company announced it was buying the plant. “I’m looking to take coal to the next level.”
During the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in the fall, conference head Alok Sharma declared that “the end of coal is in sight.” More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal, the single-biggest source of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide emissions. The United States did not join them. Despite its rapid decline, coal still generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and has strong political backing in pockets of the country.
Charles Stroup, a local banker and land agent who supports wind power in North Dakota’s Mercer County, compared the coal industry here to a dying relative that the community is desperate to save, no matter how grim the prognosis.
“Mother doesn’t die in 10 minutes,” Stroup said. “She takes a while.”
For many here, the loss of coal remains unthinkable, and new sources of energy — no matter how promising for local residents and governments — represent a serious threat.
“If we get the word that [Coal Creek Station] is gone for sure, the best business and economic play for the lignite counties and the State is to ban any more renewables,” McLean County state’s attorney Ladd Erickson wrote in an email in 2020 to aides to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), part of a batch of documents obtained through a state public records request.
Otherwise, Erickson, an elected official who serves as prosecutor and legal adviser to the county commissioners, warned that “there will be no more coal mining because new mine areas will be all wind turbines, solar panels, and power lines.”
Homages to coal
The prospect of Coal Creek’s closing landed hard in Underwood, a city of about 800 people. The antiques shop on its barely holding-on main street is called the Coal Bin. One of its bars is the Black Nugget. And those businesses, and many more here, depend on the power plant — North Dakota’s largest — and the neighboring open-pit coal mine. Together, the two operations provide about 700 jobs.
Residents feared the plant’s closure, and some moved away because “they saw the writing on the wall,” Underwood city commissioner Paul Cabrera said.
“It felt like a pause on everything,” said Alisha Schieber, 32, who runs a small cafe and clothing shop in Underwood. “For a lot of the town, it’s the difference between having a job and being able to stay — or not.”
As pressure on coal mounted, local officials turned against wind. In March 2020, after Great River Energy announced it might close Coal Creek and invest in wind farms, McLean County, where the plant stands, passed zoning rules that effectively blocked wind-power projects from accessing Coal Creek’s valuable transmission line. In August of that year, the county added a two-year moratorium on solar projects.
Neighboring Mercer County also imposed a moratorium on new wind projects when it appeared Coal Creek would close. That decision blocked the 152-megawatt wind farm proposal known as Garrison Butte.
These types of anti-renewable laws and regulations have popped up frequently across the country, driven by local opposition to wind turbines and solar panels or as a way to extract concessions from developers. Indiana alone has laws in 18 counties — one-fifth of the state — that ban or limit renewable-energy projects, particularly wind farms, according to a report by Columbia University Law School.
North Dakota has been more welcoming to wind. It generates about 4,000 megawatts from turbines, and the state ranks fifth in the country in its share of wind-powered electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Burgum, a former Microsoft executive, has pledged that the state will be carbon neutral by 2030.
But North Dakota also has the world’s largest deposit of lignite coal, which residents have been mining since the 19th century. And coal still accounts for more than half the state’s energy generation. It ranks as North Dakota’s fifth-largest industry, according the Lignite Energy Council, and state officials estimate it has a $3 billion impact.
At local government meetings in Mercer and McLean counties in 2020, supporters of coal warned about the consequences of the plant’s closure. Erickson — the state’s attorney who led the charge to keep the coal-fired plant alive — frequented those gatherings.
Erickson warned that wind turbines would clutter the landscape, disrupt the hunting and outdoor recreation economy, and provide scant financial returns.
“What’s going on is one of the most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly lignite coal plants in the entire country is being attacked by a replacement economy that is like a penny on the dollar for North Dakota and our region,” Erickson said at a public meeting in April 2020.
In his emails, Erickson discussed how he could use his office to undercut wind energy. In one August 2020 email to an executive at Great River Energy, he wrote about the “renewable leasing frenzy” and how it would lock coal underground.
It was “possible that the state’s attorneys are going to have to step in before the session and nuke all these leases by making them worthless through our ordinance powers,” he wrote.
Sierra Club leaders, who obtained these records, say they show that Erickson manipulated local laws to block wind projects and undermine the value of wind leases. His actions also made it “ridiculously unattractive for Great River Energy to actually be able to transition to clean energy and ultimately close the plant,” said Jeremy Fisher, a senior strategy and technical adviser with the Sierra Club.
In an interview, Erickson, who also is acting state’s attorney in Mercer County, said his “nuke” comment was directed primarily at solar leasing companies he considered illegitimate. But he agreed he wanted to help “our political establishment” find “a new owner of the plant.”
Erickson described Coal Creek Station as a “critical piece of national security infrastructure,” because it provides reliable power at a time of growing strain on the electricity grid.
“There’s no substitute for it,” he said.
Erickson also described himself as a “big believer” in climate change and said these anti-renewable ordinances would be temporary. He added that he has been meeting regularly with wind-power developers and working on revised rules so they can operate in this part of North Dakota once the power plant’s sale is final. But the prospect that wind energy would replace the area’s lignite industry wasn’t acceptable, he said.
“If the wind turbines were the one to replace the plant, that wasn’t something we wanted,” he said. “Our miners are very important.”
Wind is ‘another commodity’
Art Ziemann knows coal. As a young man, he began with the “dirty, nasty job” of cleaning the tipple — sweeping the coal dust from the warehouse where the coal was stored. As he gained experience with North American Coal, he moved to operating a scraper, stripping layers of earth from the undulating fields of Mercer County. His time in Vietnam had taught him about explosives, so he advanced to blasting, detonating charges in the black seams of coal.
He also knows what it feels like to lose a coal job — after getting laid off from a mine in Montana.
“I was devastated. I had a young family,” he said. “So I have some empathy for these people who are wondering every day if they have a job or not. I understand what they’re going through.”
It helps explain why Ziemann and other landowners who want to bring wind power to this part of North Dakota rarely speak ill of coal. They recognize how central the industry has been to developing their communities. But they believe that renewable energy can operate alongside it and that local officials are blocking the energy industry’s natural evolution.
“The coal people kind of have blinders on about the possibility of coexisting,” Ziemann said. “I think we can coexist. I don’t believe for a minute that a proposed 150-megawatt wind farm in Mercer County is going to displace coal in Mercer County. It’s not going to happen. And it’s disappointing the commissioners can’t realize that.
“The nation has a mind-set for clean energy,” he added. “And that’s not going to go away anytime soon.”
Ziemann and several other Mercer County residents have signed leases that would allow wind turbines to be built on farmland they own. Ziemann’s five-year lease is controlled by the energy giant NextEra, the third wind developer to own it over the past several years. Until the project has been built, payments are small, these landowners said, but they could earn as much as $25,000 per year if NextEra or another developer places a single wind turbine on their property.
“Wind is just another commodity that we can harvest,” said Gary Scheid, a 77-year-old retired farmer in the Mercer County town of Hazen who also has signed a wind lease. “Why are we not harvesting this commodity if there’s a demand for it?”
A NextEra spokesperson declined to comment.
Supporting wind energy here is not without risk, and several people would talk only on the condition of anonymity because they were afraid they and their families would face backlash from the community. Coal industry employees hold many prominent positions in local politics.
One farmer who was happy when he heard the polluting coal plant may shut down said he did not dare discuss that publicly. “If we were to be quoted, and it got in The Washington Post, our farm would be targeted,” he said, describing the area as “Trumpian to the max.”
“They would come out there, and I think they would start shooting holes in the tires,” the farmer added. “That is how bad it is. I really believe that. We would be ostracized within our community.”
Dreams of bitcoin, and burying carbon
Rainbow Energy Marketing Corp. — a subsidiary of United Energy Corp., a Bismarck-based firm run by the oil tycoon Loren Kopseng — has never owned a coal-fired power plant. It is in the business of marketing electricity, “moving electrons throughout the United States and Mexico,” its president, Tschider, said in an interview.
Minnesota regulators last year paused the sale of Coal Creek — deferring approval of the transfer of the plant’s transmission line to one of Rainbow’s subsidiaries — as they sought more information on its ability to operate the line and decommission it in the future. They approved the transfer Jan 6.
The sale of Coal Creek was controversial even among the 28 member cooperatives that own Great River Energy, the seller. The largest one voted against it on the grounds that the ongoing coal operation would harm the environment and generate less savings than expected from the closure.
Rainbow says it plans to raise revenue in different ways to avoid ongoing losses. Cabrera said company officials told him and other Underwood commissioners that it plans to build a data center on the plant campus and use the electricity generated to mine bitcoin, the digital currency. Tschider said he “wouldn’t identify it as bitcoin” but confirmed that the company was pursuing data centers on-site.
Rainbow also wants to be a leader in carbon capture and sequestration — storing carbon dioxide in rock formations underground so it does not pollute the atmosphere — despite having no prior experience with this work. This vision was “a key reason” that Great River Energy began negotiations with Rainbow, said Jon Brekke, a vice president at Great River Energy and its chief power supply officer.
“We want to give them a chance to pursue carbon capture and sequestration and preserve these jobs and perhaps show the world a way to manage CO2 emissions while still contributing to the grid,” Brekke said. “For everyone that’s concerned about climate change, there’s also people [concerned] about reliability and affordability of electricity going forward. So we’re seeking a balance here.”
Critics of the sale say Rainbow does not have the expertise to fulfill its plan to build a $1.5 billion carbon capture and sequestration operation. No such plant exists in the United States, and one attempt — the Kemper project in Mississippi — failed after its sponsors spent more than $7 billion.
“It’s very costly, and the development of such is borne on the backs of the American taxpayer,” said Clean Up the River Environment Executive Director Duane Ninneman, whose western Minnesota group advocates for renewable energy in rural areas. “So, to me, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
In an email Kopseng sent to state and industry officials on July 4, 2021, he admitted that his team knew little about the technology.
“It sounds really good but to be totally honest all the[carbon capture sequestration] stuff is pretty much totally new to me,” he wrote to a group that included the state’s lieutenant governor, Brent Sanford (R).
Kopseng was responding to an energy company executive who had pitched him on a carbon capture technology. “Its no doubt a huge learning process for our small group which we are stepping into and appreciate your help,” Kopseng told him.
Kopseng referred questions to Tschider.
Tschider said Rainbow is committed to making carbon capture a reality at the facility. He said the formations underneath Coal Creek, and throughout the state, are favorable for storing carbon and can make North Dakota a leader in the industry. He called the several billion dollars in tax credits the federal government offers for carbon sequestration “essential” for making that happen.
“There’s a tremendous amount of money being deployed for carbon capture, and we want to be a part of that,” he said.
But it won’t be soon. Tschider said he hoped the project would start around 2025.
In the meantime, coal holds on.