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panel discussion

Rich Garman, left, Jonathan Fortner, middle, and Ned Kruger participate in a panel discussion on future markets, such as greenhouses, autonomous vehicles and rare earth elements, at Thursday's Lignite Energy Council's annual meeting at the Bismarck Event Center. 

Electricity, ethanol and … tomatoes — by July, Great River Energy will decide whether it could profitably power a greenhouse on the grounds of its Coal Creek Station coal-fired power plant.

A year and a half ago, GRE, North American Coal, California-based Houweling’s Group and Knorr Farms of Sawyer started researching a greenhouse as a potential user of excess heat from the Underwood power plant. Now, they’re nearing completion of the feasibility study.

"It is looking reasonably positive,” Rich Garman, GRE’s senior project manager of business development, told the crowd of the Lignite Energy Council's annual meeting in Bismarck Thursday.

If found economically viable, it would be another couple years before anything is built.

Plans for the potential plant would be based on a Houweling’s greenhouse in Mona, Utah, where the company has excess heat and carbon dioxide from flue gas pumped into a 28-acre tomato greenhouse from the neighboring natural gas-fired power plant run by Rocky Mountain Power.

“This one really caught our eye,” Garman said, flashing a picture of the snow-covered landscape around the power plant, backdropped by mountains.

The Utah facility grows 457,000 bushels of tomatoes, producing year round, and employs 120 people. Should the company build in North Dakota, a similar facility would produce enough to supply markets in Minnesota, Winnipeg and possibly Chicago.

Heat for the North Dakota greenhouse would come from Coal Creek’s cooling tower basins.

“It’s a wild amount of heat in that cooling tower basin,” Garman said, adding it’s a lower grade of heat not useful in the power plant but could be good for the greenhouse.

There would be some differences — North Dakota is colder and has shorter days during the winter, providing less light for growing. Should Coal Creek’s flue gas be chosen for the project, it might require processing due to the different chemical makeup of the lignite burned there.

Coal Creek does of the advantage of existing road and rail access, land availability to the west and water availability.

“We’re already moving a significant amount of water from the (Missouri) River up to our site,” Garman said.

The study has been done in two parts as GRE would not build or operate the greenhouse.

Houweling’s has been the one studying what it will take to build the facility.

“What we’re studying is what it take to put infrastructure in place so (Houweling’s) can build a facility,” Garman said, weighing decisions such as the size and cost of pipes.

The two parts of the study will then be combined to determine the final economics.

A portion of funding for the study has come from the state’s Lignite Research Council, as well as $75,000 from the state’s Agricultural Products Utilization Commission.

When Knorr Farms joined the project, Steve Knorr said his family farm got involved because the greenhouse market is underdeveloped in the United States and he appreciates the opportunity to try to tie North Dakota’s two largest industries, agriculture and energy, to find benefits for both.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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Business Reporter