in an attempt to save coal mining jobs, despite protests from landowners who'd like to rent their land to wind energy companies. Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

A windfarm near Velva, North Dakota. Two counties in the state have enacted drastic restrictions on new wind projects in an attempt to save coal mining jobs, despite protests from landowners who'd like to rent their land to wind energy companies.

Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

North Dakota has lots of coal. It also has strong and consistent winds. It might be the perfect spot to showcase the long-awaited "energy transition" from climate-warming fossil fuels to climate-saving renewables.

Yet that transition has hit a snag. Two counties in the state have enacted drastic restrictions on new wind projects in an attempt to save coal mining jobs, despite protests from landowners who'd like to rent their land to wind energy companies. It's a sign of how difficult that transition can be for communities that depend on coal for jobs and tax revenue. The economic benefits of wind power, even though substantial, often flow to different people.

The dispute erupted last year when Great River Energy, a rural electric cooperative based in Minnesota, announced that it planned to sell its Coal Creek Station, north of Bismarck, ND. If no buyer showed up, the company said it would shut the plant down in 2022. A coal mine that supplies the plant with fuel also would have to close. Roughly a thousand jobs would disappear.

"This has been a heart-breaking decision," said David Saggau, the company's CEO, speaking by video to the North Dakota Lignite Council, which represents North Dakota's mining industry. Yet Saggua told the miners that he had little choice, because the coal plant couldn't compete with cheaper electricity from other sources, mainly natural gas.

That step cut the company's losses, but it also opened up an intriguing new possibility. "We realized there was an opportunity right away," says Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, based in Minnesota.

The opportunity lay in a high-capacity transmission line that runs all the way from Coal Creek Station to Minneapolis. Closing Coal Creek would free up that line, sweeping aside one of the key roadblocks that have slowed the growth of wind energy in North Dakota.

"It's no secret that one of the barriers to development is a lack of transmission capacity to move the wind- or solar-produced electricity from where it's produced to where it needs to be used," Soholt says.

Great River Energy, in fact, wanted to build huge wind farms around Coal Creek — a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts — to take advantage of that transmission line.

That's when Ladd Erickson stepped in. He's the attorney for McClean County, North Dakota, where the coal plant is located, and he launched a battle over access to that power line. "The transmission line is everything," he says. "It's the golden goose."

Erickson wants to keep Coal Creek Station open, because it's a pillar of the local economy. Other political leaders in North Dakota do, too. They're looking for a company willing to buy the plant and keep it running. And in the meantime, they don't want wind companies claiming that transmission line. "Without a transmission line, there's no value in the plant," Erickson says.

Two counties next to Coal Creek Station moved quickly to keep wind companies from getting access to the line. McClean County adopted new rules that allowed the county to deny permits for feeder lines from new wind farms. Mercer County, next door, passed a two-year moratorium on new wind projects.

The new rules had a quick effect. Great River Energy dropped its plans for wind farms in North Dakota, and moved instead to build them in Minnesota, where wind power could take advantage of another set of transmission lines, which currently carry power from gas-burning plants.

But the county's efforts to shut down wind development provoked heated dissent from landowners who'd hoped to rent some of their land for wind energy development.

"I cussed that frickin' wind for 50 years," retired farmer Gary Scheid told the Mercer County commissioners at a meeting last July. "This is an opportunity to maybe cash in a little bit on that wind."

He told the commissioners that he was "shocked" by their moratorium. Representatives from the Laborers International Union also criticized the moratorium, arguing that it blocked potential new jobs.

Others, like Anna Novak, who's married to a miner, urged the county to keep up the fight to save coal power. "People are scared that they're going to lose their jobs, and that Hazen and Beulah will become ghost towns," she said. She pointed out that many of the landowners who support the wind projects and would profit from them don't even live nearby.

John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, says that he has been talking to several companies that are interested in buying the coal plant. Weeda, who previously worked for Great River Energy and supervised operations at Coal Creek Station, is optimistic that the plant will stay in operation. He says that the potential buyers would like to build an addition to the plant that would capture its carbon dioxide emissions. Previous attempts to deploy this technology, however, have not been profitable. NRG Energy, which currently operates the only facility in the U.S. that captures carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-burning power plant, recently announced that it will suspend operations at the plant.

Beth Soholt, from the Clean Grid Alliance, is skeptical that Coal Creek Station will survive. "If Great River River Energy, as good an operator as they are, couldn't make it economically feasible, I find it hard to believe that somebody else would. Long-term, it's not feasible to keep that plant open," she says. "We already have good wind and solar resources in the state. We have demand for clean energy. They need to capture the opportunity that's in front of them."

Pin it

NorCal News

  • i am a student 1412778 640
    April 16, 2021

    Santa Rosa parents ask district to fully reopen

    At least 250 parents in Santa Rosa city schools this week signed a letter asking the district to open full time, in accordance with the state’s updated reopening plan. On April 1st, the district began in-person instruction two shortened days a week for elementary aged children. Next will be…
  • Screen Shot 2021 04 14 at 5.52.45 PM
    April 15, 2021

    As vaccine eligibility opens, hesitation is the next hurdle

    As of today, all adults in Sonoma County are eligible to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, but there’s still a lot of hesitancy about whether to get the shot. Sonoma County has successfully vaccinated 36 percent of the adult population, and is surpassing other counties of similar size. But vaccine…
  • injection 5722329 640
    April 14, 2021

    J&J pause slows down vaccinations of vulnerable residents

    Because the new J&J vaccine didn’t arrive in the county until March, so far it only makes up about three percent of those administered. But the single-dose vaccine has been important in getting shots to unsheltered and homebound folks. Now, a few hundreds of doses intended for those hard-to-reach…
  • Default Image
    April 13, 2021

    Businesses have more options in orange tier

    After spending six months stuck in the state's most restrictive purple tier, Sonoma joined the majority of the Bay Area in the second least restrictive orange tier last week because of low COVID numbers in the county. Being in the orange tier means COVID spread is moderate and businesses can…
  • April 12, 2021

    Windsor mayor under sex-crimes cloud

    Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli is refusing to step down despite sex-crime allegations from half a dozen women, including a fellow city council member. An increasingly isolated Foppoli is rejecting calls to resign from just about every North Bay political leader after accusations emerged late last…
    April 07, 2021

    Sonoma County enters orange tier

    Sonoma County's virtual community COVID-19 briefing.Less than a month after moving out of the state’s most restrictive purple tier, the County made it into the more relaxed orange tier Wednesday. The announcement comes a day after Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s aim to fully open up the…
  • IMG 7932 3
    Apr 06, 2021

    Health Fair vaccinates hundreds of residents

    Art about the COVID-19 vaccine by Santa Rosa art nonprofit Raizes Collective at the Cesar Chavez Health Fair. People waited in line starting at 9…
  • Document
    Apr 01, 2021

    Santa Rosa hands out weather radios to boost alert system

    A NOAA Weather Radio. (photo courtesy of the City of Santa Rosa's website)Santa Rosa is boosting its ability to notify residents when a fire breaks…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 31 at 10.19.40 AM
    Mar 31, 2021

    Sonoma County teens design quarantine mural

    Santa Rosa-based art organization Artstart's Shelter in Place Mural. (photo courtesy of Jennifer Tatum). COVID has affected everyone, old and young.…
  • covid 19 4987797 1280
    Mar 29, 2021

    COVID-19 easing, while vaccine distribution hits bottleneck

    By Marc Albert Improving data suggests vaccines are gaining the upper hand and COVID-19 related restrictions across Sonoma County may be eased as…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 24 at 5.08.32 PM
    Mar 24, 2021

    New Data Shows an Uptick in Fatal Drug Overdoses

    COVID-19 numbers are on the decline after Sonoma County moved into the state’s red tier a week and a half ago, but communities are facing other types…
  • kelp 966305 640
    Mar 19, 2021

    Abalone season cancelled, at least until 2026

    By Marc Albert With wild abalone populations decimated by a string of environmental setbacks, besides over-fishing. State officials reiterated Friday…
  • grass
    Mar 19, 2021

    Sonoma likely facing challenging drought

    One of the driest winters on record locally, may cause serious water issues this summerBy Marc Albert The rainy season has hardly been generous.…
  • 031721 SC briefing1
    Mar 17, 2021

    Sonoma County schools planning April return to campus

    About 70,000 school students across Sonoma County are heading back to classrooms in April. So far, 47 schools across Sonoma County have the green…
  • covid 19 4960254 640 1
    Mar 12, 2021

    Covid Restrictions to Ease Sunday

    As predicted, declining new COVID-19 infections and other metrics will allow Sonoma County to ease pandemic-related restrictions this weekend. KRCB's…
  • IMG 1289
    Mar 12, 2021

    The Power of Art for Vaccine Outreach

    Advocates, artists, healthcare professionals and residents gathered in Santa Rosa's Roseland Neighborhood on Valentines Day to showcase and pass out…

National News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.