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Lawmakers water down bill on power grid reliability

Lawmakers water down bill on power grid reliability

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Anna Novak, of Hazen, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 2313 while testifying in front of members of a Senate committee on Thursday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The bill is related to electric power reliability in North Dakota. Novak's husband works at a local coal mine.

This week’s rolling blackouts were the talk of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday as legislators reworked a proposal focused on the reliability of the power grid.

The original version of the legislation drew opposition from the utility sector, so lawmakers scrapped it. It would have required that operators of wind or solar farms secure a certain amount of electricity from sources such as coal or natural gas to back up their facilities' power output.

The committee amended the bill at the suggestion of its sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, after consulting with various utility groups. The new version, which the committee endorsed by a vote of 5-1, requires the state to prepare an annual report about the resilience of the power grid.

North Dakota Transmission Authority Director John Weeda would oversee that assignment, which would be delivered to the state Industrial Commission, Legislative Council and grid operators. Weeda told the Tribune he supports the measure. The bill also tasks the state Transmission Authority with participating in transmission-related studies.

As Wardner explained the amendments, he told the committee he’s “for all types of energy.”

“I want to make sure they all develop and we get the most we can out of them, but we need to have a mix and we’ve got to have a baseload,” he said.

“Baseload power” refers to sources such as coal, gas or nuclear that can operate 24/7, in contrast with “intermittent power” such as wind that can operate only when it’s windy outside.

This week’s rolling blackouts experienced by thousands of members of North Dakota’s rural electric cooperatives came up frequently during the hearing. The blackouts stemmed from a power grid stressed by cold weather in the south-central U.S. Due to the multistate nature of the grid, one grid operator ordered temporary outages across its 14-state territory, which includes North Dakota. Numerous power sources in the South failed to perform in the cold, including natural gas, coal and wind power.

“As this worst-case scenario was unfolding before my eyes this week, I really started to become scared,” said Anna Novak, a Hazen resident whose husband is a coal miner.

She told the committee that rumors have spread through North Dakota’s coal country that Leland Olds Station, a coal-fired power plant near Stanton, is slated to close one unit in 2025 and its second in 2030.

The rumors began with an email the plant manager sent to workers last week, which prompted plant owner Basin Electric Power Cooperative to clarify to employees that it has not made a decision to shutter the facility. The co-op said the dates come from a financial forecast, which includes “numerous assumptions” that change frequently, according to the clarification obtained by the Western Dakota Energy Association. The 2025 date, for example, stems from a decision by Basin’s board related to depreciation associated with one of Leland Olds’ units, and that “does not solely determine the useful operational life” of the unit, the co-op said.

The rumors come on the heels of other coal plant woes. Stanton Station shut down in 2017, and Heskett Station and Coal Creek Station, North Dakota’s largest coal-fired power plant, are slated to close next year.

“My town will be devastated if we do not take action,” Novak told lawmakers Thursday. “We need leadership from all of you standing strong in the face of uncertainty.”

No utility groups spoke at the hearing, though several submitted written testimony saying they support the amended version of the bill.

Just one person stood up against the measure, Ryan Warner of Lightspring, a Bismarck-based solar and energy storage company.

“This bill says it’s about grid reliability, but I think this bill is about propping up coal for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Is the problem we’re solving how to figure out a way to make coal more economical for the future, or is the problem we’re solving trying to make the grid more reliable?”

He raised the topic of climate change exacerbating extreme weather, saying that burning fossil fuels to generate electricity “has started a chain reaction that has directly led to the grid disruptions of today.”

The bill next moves to the full Senate.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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