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North Dakota's largest wind farm slated for coal county with anti-renewables rules

McLean County enacted restrictions on the development of new wind projects in response to plans for the retirement of Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal plant. But with a deal nearly secure to save the plant, local officials and project developers expect the local ordinances to fall.

Wind generator propellers rotate over hills
A wind farm abuts a traditional farm July 7, 2014, south of Wilton, N.D.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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BISMARCK — One of the North Dakota counties that enacted local anti-renewable energy ordinances in response to plans to shutter the Coal Creek Station power plant could become home to the state’s single largest wind farm.

Great River Energy, the Minnesota-based electric cooperative in the process of selling Coal Creek Station, announced Tuesday, Jan. 18, plans to purchase power from a proposed 400-megawatt wind farm in central North Dakota’s McLean County, not far from its coal plant.

The announcement comes two weeks after Great River Energy and the buyer of Coal Creek Station, the Bismarck-based Rainbow Energy Marketing Corp., informed Minnesota utility regulators of plans for a major wind farm in North Dakota.

Discovery Wind, which will be developed by the Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy, is expected to be online by 2025. Minnesota regulators two weeks ago approved the transfer of the 436 mile transmission line tied to Coal Creek, which would carry electricity generated from the plant and proposed wind farm to the Twin Cities area.

McLean County, where the 1,100 megawatt Coal Creek Station is located, was one of the coal country counties that passed local ordinances restricting the construction of new wind farms in the area after Great River Energy announced its intentions to shutter Coal Creek Station in the spring of 2020.

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Therese LaCanne, a spokesperson for Great River Energy, said that the co-op, Rainbow Energy and local and state officials in North Dakota have been working together to craft policies to allow for the new development, saying they are “optimistic about the project’s success.”

The ordinances adopted in McLean County and next door Mercer County in 2020 proved instrumental in protecting Coal Creek from retirement and preserving hundreds of jobs tied to the plant. North Dakota leaders rallied in the year following the shut-down announcement to find a new owner for the plant, landing one in Rainbow Energy.

Leaders at Rainbow Energy are pursuing plans to retrofit Coal Creek Station for carbon capture and storage, an emerging but so far sparsely used technology they have stressed is crucial to the future life of the plant. A process of stripping planet-warming greenhouse gases off facility emissions and burying them permanently, carbon capture and storage has been touted by North Dakota leaders as the pathway for making coal production cleaner and more economic for the long term.

Capturing the carbon emissions would also draw on a significant amount of power from the coal plant, clearing some space on the region's congested electricity grid. Rainbow Energy stated its intentions to fill that gap with renewable energy when it first publicized its plans to acquire Coal Creek Station.

Ladd Erickson, the state’s attorney for McLean County who helped draft the local ordinances to block wind development, has said the rules were always meant as temporary measures to help facilitate the coal plant's sale.

In an interview, Erickson said the commissioners in McLean County are on board with plans to amend the local zoning rules to allow for the project. The county should put forward a draft for public comment no later than February, he said.

Great River Energy CEO David Saggau said in a joint statement with Rainbow and Apex that the cooperative’s Minnesota members “will enjoy stable wholesale electric rates for years while providing clean and reliable energy.”

The cooperative said it is on track to slash its carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2025, allowing it to meet Minnesota climate targets “decades ahead of schedule.”

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Rainbow Energy president Stacy Tschider said the wind farm plans show the company is delivering “on verbal promises we made when we first announced our intent to purchase Coal Creek Station."

“This is just one of many carbon neutral objectives we intend to fulfill, culminating with the successful implementation of carbon capture and sequestration at Coal Creek Station,” he said. 

No single existing wind farm in North Dakota is as large as Apex's planned 400-megawatt Discovery Wind. The Bison Wind Energy Center , operated by Allete, consists of multiple distinct farms that combine for 500 megawatts of capacity.

At least one project has stalled under the county ordinances in the last year, with the energy giant NextEra still seeking a pathway to build a smaller wind farm across the river in Mercer County.

Once Coal Creek's future is secure, Erickson said the next step for McLean County is to amend the rules to allow for landowners to have a say in the siting of the wind project. How the development plans are received locally remains to be seen.

“I think the answer to that is location,” Erickson said. “Some areas might be receptive and some areas not. I think it’s all gonna be about the location.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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