North Dakota coal production was up 1.4 million tons in 2017 over the previous year, the highest it has been since 2009.

The increase mostly came from BNI Coal’s Center Mine, which feeds Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station. The mine provided about 800,000 more tons of coal in 2017 than it did in 2016, going from 3.8 million tons to 4.6 million tons.

The coal-fired power plant has had a number of planned outages in past years but none in 2017.

“That was a big contributor,” said Minnkota spokesman Ben Fladhammer. “There were no major projects so there was reliable operation of the plant; that was really the difference.”

From 2007 to 2011, the plant completed a major environmental upgrade, which took the plant offline in order to install the systems over that five-year period. And 2016 saw an extended maintenance outage.

“When you have that many planned outages, it impacts the ability to reach generation records,” Fladhammer said.

The largest lignite mine in the United States — the Freedom Mine north of Beulah — also saw an increase in the coal it provides to Antelope Valley Station, Leland Olds Station and the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, all operated by Basin Electric Power Cooperative.

The mine, operated by North American Coal Corporation, provided nearly 600,000 more tons last year compared to 2016, going from 14.1 million tons of production to 14.7 million tons.

The increase in tonnage was largely due to Basin Electric’s planning for winter consumption, said Curt Pearson, a spokesman for the electric cooperative.

Basin’s customers were struck by a difficult winter at the end of 2016.

“That has been an incentive to ramp up stockpiling at Leland Olds,” Pearson said. “So that’s the biggest reason for the increase.”

Production at North American’s Falkirk Mine near Underwood held steady at 7.2 million tons. And North American’s Coyote Creek Mine replaced production lost from Dakota Westmoreland’s Beulah Mine.

Coyote Creek supplied 2.1 million tons in 2017 compared to 1.6 million supplied from June through the end of 2016. The coal goes to Otter Tail Power Company’s Coyote Station.

Dakota Westmoreland, which used to supply to Coyote Station, went from 948,000 tons in 2016 to 437,000 tons in 2017. Those tons were sent to Montana-Dakota Utilities Co.’s Heskett Station in Mandan.

“The lignite industry is unique in that our plants are generally adjacent to the mines, which reduces if not eliminates transportation costs,” Lignite Energy Council President Jason Bohrer said in a statement. “It also means that our state benefits from the jobs associated from both the mines and the power plants along with low-cost, reliable electricity generated from lignite.”

Currently, North Dakota’s seven lignite-based power plants generate enough electricity to serve 2 million families in North Dakota and surrounding states.

Changes have been made to this story to clarify the nature of planned outages at Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station.

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

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