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Speakers talk wary investors, crypto mining at North Dakota coal event

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North Dakota Transmission Authority Director John Weeda speaks at the Lignite Energy Council fall conference on Wednesday at the Bismarck Event Center.

North Dakota utility companies find that a growing number of investors are distancing themselves from coal.

Some investors have established policies against providing financing for utilities that operate coal-fired power plants. Others have set a cap on the percentage of coal a utility can have in its generation portfolio if they are to invest.

The shift away from coal within the investment community comes as part of the global “ESG” movement in which socially conscious investors apply environmental, social and governance factors in their financing decisions.

“What you’ve seen is a really fast change,” Montana-Dakota Utilities President and CEO Nicole Kivisto said. “Two years ago, we weren’t really having these types of discussions.”

She spoke Wednesday during the Lignite Energy Council’s Fall Conference at the Bismarck Event Center alongside Todd Telesz, the new CEO and general manager of Basin Electric Power Cooperative.

Investors’ shift in priorities “requires us to be much more focused on our relationships we have,” Telesz said.

Utilities are spending more time telling their stories to investors, explaining who they serve and why they exist, according to Kivisto and Telesz.

There’s increasing pressure on companies such as MDU to make voluntary disclosures on issues such as the steps it’s taking to reduce emissions, or the diversity of its workforce, Kivisto said. Federal regulators might require such disclosures down the road, she said.

North Dakota Transmission Authority Director John Weeda also spoke at the conference, offering observations on the power grid as more and more states set emissions reduction requirements in an effort to curb climate change.

“It’s a tremendous curve coming at us,” he said.

Weeda cannot envision a reliable power grid that does not have “a substantial amount” of energy that can be called upon on-demand on bitterly cold days when electricity needs soar.

Coal has that attribute, but renewables such as wind and solar power don’t, and battery storage technology that could potentially make up for it has not advanced enough, Weeda said.

“We have to have practical goals,” he said.

Weeda also touched on another trend emerging within North Dakota’s power sector: cryptocurrency mining.

A large facility planned for Jamestown will be operated by Applied Blockchain and will use a substantial amount of electricity -- 100 megawatts -- for mining digital currency.

The complex process involves computers and servers and generates a lot of heat. North Dakota’s cold winters make it an attractive place for such a setup.

“We’ve got hundreds of megawatts (worth) of people sniffing around North Dakota for places they could install server farms,” Weeda said.

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

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