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Spiritwood Station online; Plant is first new coal-fired generating plant in N.D. in more than 30 years

Jim McKay, fuel and logistics manager for Great River Energy, stands on the walkway of the coal conveyor belt at Spiritwood Station Friday and overlooks the area where coal is unloaded from specially designed covered rail cars. John M. Steiner/The Sun1 / 2
“We’re generating 34 mega-watts of electricity now. Things have gone exceptionally well.” Bill Wahlman leader of plant operations and maintenance, Spiritwood Station2 / 2

SPIRITWOOD, N.D. — The fires have been lit, and the turbines are spinning on the first new coal-fired electrical generating plant to go online in North Dakota in more than 30 years, according to Bill Wahlman, leader of plant operations and maintenance at the Great River Energy’s Spiritwood Station.

Spiritwood Station is a 99-megawatt coal-fired generating plant that will also produce industrial steam for the nearby Cargill Malt plant and Dakota Spirit AgEnergy, an ethanol plant which is under construction across the road from the generating plant. Jim McKay, fuel and logistics manager for GRE, said construction and startup costs for the plant were about $425 million.

Construction began on Spiritwood Station in 2007 and was completed in 2011. The generating plant operated briefly that fall during a testing phase, but has been idle ever since. A small staff has performed maintenance tasks at the plant for the past four years.

“The startup is going well,” Wahlman said. “The normal startup is usually a little bit of chaos. This has gone smoothly.”

Wahlman said the boiler was first fired using natural gas. On Aug. 18, Spiritwood Station took its first delivery of coal and switched to burning coal on Wednesday.

“The boiler is stable, and the turbine and generator are humming,” he said. “That went remarkably smooth considering the plant has been laid up since 2011.”

Even during the startup phase, Spiritwood Station is producing electricity.

“We’re generating 34 megawatts of electricity now,” he said. “Things have gone exceptionally well.”

That electricity is going on the grid and is part of the national electrical system for sale to users. When fully functional, the plant will produce 99 megawatts of electricity for commercial and residential use, about 8 megawatts of electricity for its own use powering pumps and conveyors and steam for industrial use.

McKay said the plant burns coal that has been processed through a drying and refining process they refer to as DryFining at GRE’s Coal Creek Station. This reduces the moisture content of the coal and improves the amount of energy produced when the coal is burned.

Coal processed by DryFining is shipped in enclosed rail cars, unloaded within a building and moved within Spiritwood Station on an enclosed conveyor belt.

“The coal is always enclosed to keep it dry and clean,” McKay said.

When fully operational, Spiritwood Station will burn 72 tons of coal per hour. Each rail car delivers 100 tons of coal to the plant.

Wahlman said the emissions systems are working well.

“The emissions are pretty close to specifications,” he said. “All those systems are running smoothly.”

The plant is designed to reduce emissions of pollutants into the air. This includes particle matter such as soot and harmful chemicals.

“It’s well within the range of emission standards,” Wahlman said. “It won’t be affected by changes to emission standards.”

While the startup has gone well, a number of systems still require what Wahlman referred to as “fine tuning,” before the plant could begin commercial operations sometime before Nov. 1. That includes getting online control systems fully functional rather than using manual controls utilized during the startup process.

Wahlman said the plant will increase production to between 50 megawatts and 55 megawatts through the end of next week and then shut down for the long Labor Day weekend.

“We’ll come back after Labor Day and fine tune all the systems before commercialization,” he said.

Plans call for Spiritwood Station to begin delivering steam heat to Cargill Malt in November and to Dakota Spirit AgEnergy when construction of the ethanol plant is complete in the spring.

Spiritwood Station employs 24 full-time workers along with about 25 contract employees during the startup process. “The morale has been really high during startup,” Wahlman said. “There is a lot of excitement to get this going.”

Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at 701-952-8452 or by email at