Wind energy project sparks debate in North Dakota’s coal heartland

A proposed wind farm in Oliver County, North Dakota, has stirred up controversy among local residents, officials, and energy companies. The project, which would be located near the coal-fired power plant Coal Creek Station, faces opposition from some who fear it would undermine the state’s coal industry and benefit out-of-state corporations.

Coal Creek Station’s uncertain future

Coal Creek Station is North Dakota’s largest coal plant, producing 1,100 megawatts of electricity for customers in Minnesota and other states. The plant, owned by the Minnesota-based electric cooperative Great River Energy, employs hundreds of workers and contributes millions of dollars in taxes and royalties to the local economy.

However, the plant has been struggling to compete with cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, such as natural gas and renewables. In May 2020, Great River Energy announced its intention to shut down Coal Creek Station by the end of 2022, citing economic and environmental reasons.

The announcement sparked a backlash from North Dakota leaders, who rallied to find a new owner for the plant and preserve the jobs and revenue it provides. In June 2020, two counties in the state’s coal country, Oliver and Mercer, enacted drastic restrictions on new wind projects, in an attempt to protect Coal Creek Station from further competition.

The restrictions included a moratorium on new wind permits, a minimum setback distance of 10 miles from any coal facility, and a requirement that wind developers pay for any lost coal revenue or jobs.

Wind energy project sparks debate in North Dakota’s coal heartland

A lifeline for the plant and a windfall for the wind

In June 2021, after months of negotiations, a deal was reached to save Coal Creek Station from closure. The plant was sold to Rainbow Energy Marketing, a Bismarck-based company that specializes in marketing and trading electricity. Rainbow Energy plans to retrofit the plant with carbon capture and storage technology, which would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by capturing and burying them underground.

Rainbow Energy also intends to help develop a wind farm in the area, in partnership with Great River Energy and Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia-based renewable energy company. The wind farm, named Discovery Wind, would be the largest in the state, with a capacity of 400 megawatts. It would be connected to the transmission line that carries power from Coal Creek Station to Minnesota and other states.

Great River Energy, which still owns the transmission line, announced in January 2022 that it would purchase power from Discovery Wind, as part of its goal to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2023. The wind farm is expected to be online by 2025.

Mixed reactions from the community

The deal to save Coal Creek Station and develop Discovery Wind has been welcomed by some as a win-win solution that would preserve the coal plant and its benefits, while also adding more clean energy and diversifying the local economy.

However, others have expressed concerns and skepticism about the project, especially the wind farm. Some fear that the wind farm would take up valuable land, create noise and visual pollution, harm wildlife, and interfere with the operation of the coal plant. Others question the economic and environmental benefits of the wind farm, and accuse the developers of taking advantage of the state’s transmission lines and tax incentives.

One of the critics is Rep. Anna Novak, R-Hazen, who represents the legislative district that includes Oliver County. Novak said that the wind farm would benefit Verizon, which has agreed to buy 150 megawatts from the project, but not the state or the local community.

Novak said that Verizon is buying green energy credits from the wind farm to lower its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) score, a measure of a company’s sustainability and social impact. She said that this is a form of “greenwashing”, or misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Novak also said that the wind farm is a “merchant wind farm”, meaning that it does not have a local customer or facility that can use its power, and that it relies on the transmission line that was built for the coal plant. She said that this is unfair and unsustainable, and that the wind farm should pay for its own transmission infrastructure.

A public hearing to decide the fate of the wind farm

The fate of the wind farm will be decided by the North Dakota Public Service Commission, which is responsible for regulating electric utilities and energy facilities in the state. The commission will hold a public hearing on Monday, January 29, 2024, at 10 a.m. Central time, in the Betty Hagel Memorial Civic Center in Center, the county seat of Oliver County.

The hearing will allow the public to weigh in on the proposed wind farm and the transmission line, and to ask questions and raise concerns. The commission will also consider the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project, and whether it meets the state’s energy and public interest needs.

The commission will then review the evidence and testimony, and make a decision on whether to grant a certificate of site compatibility and a route permit for the wind farm and the transmission line. The decision is expected to be made by March 31, 2024.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *