Tribune editorial: State can’t ignore coal warning signs

Tribune editorial: State can’t ignore coal warning signs

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Recent news reports should be worrisome to Coal Country since they indicate financial problems in the industry and a move away from coal.

Some of the troubling news:

The state’s five coal mines produced 27.2 million tons of lignite in 2019, an 8% decline from 2018.

The owner of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, is facing a legal challenge from one of its members related to the plant’s financial problems.

A Great River Energy official told a legislative committee it will announce any changes at Coal Creek Station in McLean County this year. Jon Brekke, a vice president for the company, said Coal Creek faces “economic challenges” because of low prices in the power market. There have been rumors that the plant will be closed.

North Dakota isn’t the only state with coal issues. A story in Tuesday’s Bismarck Tribune described problems in Wyoming. For the first time in more than two decades, coal production was below 280 million tons in 2019. That’s a 9.1% drop from 2018, and 30% less than the 381.8 million tons mined in 2014.

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin accounted for about 50% of the country’s electricity generation in 2008; now it’s less than 28%, and it’s predicted to be 10% to 12% in 10 years.

Obviously, coal’s no longer the energy king in this country. Wind farms continue to increase on the landscape. And Basin Electric announced this week it will purchase power from a solar farm being built near Rapid City by Geronimo Energy. The facility’s expected to be operational by 2022. Basin said the solar purchase is part of its all-of-the-above strategy.

The strategy, not unique to Basin, involves the use of all energy sources, including renewables and fossil fuels.

This doesn’t mean that North Dakota and the country should give up on coal. However, we can’t expect coal to be the revenue-producer for the state that it has been in the past. Counties in Coal Country can’t count on coal making them the area with the highest incomes.

There are efforts underway to help the coal industry deal with the changing times. The North Dakota Lignite Council created the Lignite Vision 21 program to pursue clean-coal technology. Project Tundra involves post-combustion technology to retrofit power plants, and efforts to pursue carbon capture are underway at other facilities.

Michael D. Mann, executive director of the Institute for Energy Studies at the University of North Dakota College of Engineering & Mines, made an argument for the future of coal in Sunday’s Tribune.

He cites the nation’s “Coal FIRST” initiative, which seeks to develop small, modular coal plants that can adapt to the changing electric grid and produce power with near-zero carbon dioxide emissions.

These are projects with a lot of potential that could make coal a viable player in the energy field in the future. Still, there could be tough times ahead until these projects are successful. It’s important that Coal Country pursue other industries and businesses to provide revenue sources and jobs.

Coal Creek Station alone employs 265 people, and there are several hundred more working at Falkirk Mine, which supplies coal to the plant. So if something should happen to the plant, it would have an immediate impact on McLean County.

The warning signs are there, so we can’t wait to act.

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