Support sale of Coal Creek; plant is good for Minnesota’s mining industry

In May 2020, Great River Energy made a surprising announcement: It would close the Coal Creek Station — a large, 1,150-megawatt coal plant in North Dakota — if it could not find a buyer. Fortunately, a buyer has stepped forward to purchase the plant and continue to generate electricity at the facility.

Rural electric co-op board members in Northeastern Minnesota should vote to approve this sale because doing so will provide reliable, low-cost electricity to Minnesota’s mining industry.

Mining is an energy-intensive industry. The Minntac mine in Mountain Iron reportedly uses more electricity and natural gas than the entire city of Minneapolis. Electricity demand for mining will only grow as Minnesota’s fledgling copper-nickel mining industry becomes an established part of the state’s economy.

The continued operation of Coal Creek will provide a critical supply of electricity to the Twin Metals mine, which is in the Lake Country co-op service territory. It will also help Minnesota’s existing iron-mining operations by providing large sums of power to the regional grid.

Many people don’t realize that the electrons that power their refrigerators, lights and laptops don’t necessarily come from the power plants operated by their electric company. Instead, the electric grid is like a community pool, and the closure of a power plant in North Dakota reduces the amount of electricity available to everyone, including iron mines in Minnesota.

Keeping 1,150 megawatts of reliable generating capacity on the grid is significant because some Minnesota iron-mining operations already have been forced to reduce their production on multiple occasions this year to conserve electricity when demand was high but there was too little supply on the regional electric grid, the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO).

Unfortunately, situations like these could become more frequent if large, coal-fired power plants are retired and the grid becomes more dependent upon unreliable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels, which often fail to deliver meaningful quantities of electricity when they are needed most.

The polar vortex of February is a prime case-in-point of this unfortunate disappearing act. According to MISO’s website, coal generated 52 percent of the power on the grid during this frigid cold snap. Natural gas provided 28 percent, and nuclear generated 12 percent. Wind and solar, on the other hand, produced just 4.2 percent and 0.3 percent of electricity demand, respectively.

Not only would the sale of Coal Creek help ensure a reliable supply of electricity to Minnesota’s mines, it would do so at a low cost. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, the Coal Creek Station produced electricity for $21 per megawatt hour in 2018, making it one of the most efficient and affordable power plants in the U.S.

The sale also would benefit the environment because the new owners plan to install equipment to catch carbon-dioxide emissions so they can be stored safely underground. This technology is like putting a catalytic converter on a car to catch pollution and help it run cleaner.

While it is true this technology still has a lot to prove, all new energy innovations need an opportunity to prove their worth on the market.

Groups who oppose the sale claim carbon capture is too risky, but their alternative plan of relying on a grid powered by wind, solar and battery storage would be far riskier.

A recent Wood Mackenzie analysis estimated there will be 741,000 megawatt hours of battery storage installed in the entire world by 2030. This may sound like a lot, but it is only one percent of Minnesota’s annual electricity consumption.

In contrast, Coal Creek generated 9.1 million megawatt hours in 2019, 12 times more than the total estimated storage capacity available globally by 2030. Anyone who pretends battery storage is the solution is not being serious.

Co-op board members in Northeastern Minnesota should support the sale of the Coal Creek Station because it will provide a reliable, affordable supply of electricity to the region’s mines and help establish North Dakota and Minnesota as global leaders on environmental stewardship.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative public-policy think tank based in Golden Valley, Minnesota.