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The future

Kroshus: Coal has long-term place as energy source

Coal will remain a longtime source of energy, says Brian Kroshus, a commissioner with the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

Noting societal pressure is urging the increased use of renewables (i.e. solar, wind, geothermal), Kroshus said a proper balance has to be found for all of this.

“I don’t think we can lose sight of how valuable the lignite industry is,” Kroshus said, noting it is valuable to North Dakota, and North Dakota’s lignite industry also supplies power to two regional grids.

“The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine,” he said. When this doesn’t happen, he said, the plants are not designed to ramp up and down quickly. They take awhile to ramp up but when they are there, they can hold steady and push power out onto the grid. “That’s incredibly important,” he said.

When it’s not quite as windy, he said, intermittent resources (i.e. natural gas peaking plants) are relied upon, which can quickly ramp up and fill in the void.

“I don’t think we can dismiss the use of lignite. Long term, I think it’s too valuable of a commodity,” he said. He said North Dakota’s lignite is sensible and economically reliable in terms of recovery, and North Dakota has good plants.

Kroshus spoke to members of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Committee on May 23.

North Dakota has an 800-year supply of coal, and currently, almost 80 percent of the lignite mined in the state is used for electrical generation. Lignite is a raw material that is also used in many other products. Research is being done to expand the value-added products from lignite, according to North Dakota Lignite Energy Council officials.

Kroshus said North Dakota’s plants have a significant advantage because they are mine mouth plants.

A mine mouth plant is a coal-burning electricity generating plant built close to a coal mine.

Otter Tail Power Co. is shutting down the Hoot Lake Plant, a coal-fired power station at Fergus Falls, Minn., and replacing it with a wind project, according to Kroshus. Otter Tail Power also plans to add a natural gas plant. He said one of the reasons the Hoot Lake Plant was disadvantaged compared to North Dakota’s plants is that plant had to ship coal from many miles away and had to deal with high shipping costs.

He said having nearby mines is a tremendous advantage for North Dakota’s power plants.

The Stanton Station coal-fired power plant in North Dakota was closed down. He said that plant was bringing in coal from miles away so it had shipping costs on top of trying to update equipment.

“It just wasn’t economically viable anymore. Our other plants are economically viable. They’re incredibly important,” Kroshus said.

Kroshus was appointed to the Public Service Commission in March 2017 by Gov. Doug Burgum and was elected by the voters in 2018. He is the current PSC chairman.

He said he has had the opportunity to travel the country and recently was in Birmingham, Ala., where he spent time with staff at Southern Research, who are working on coal technology, and toured a Southern Power plant. Several weeks ago he was invited by the British Embassy on a five-day tour of the United Kingdom, where he could “compare notes” with those involved in energy there.

He said much of what is happening in energy transition is coming from society – not just in the U.S. but around the globe. As an example, he referred to the Super Bowl Budweiser commercial talking about utilizing wind energy, and noted that many other well-known companies are entering into green energy – doing it from a marketing standpoint for a number of reasons.

“When you talk about the resource mix, it’s more about clean energy at the end of the day, and clean energy is not exclusive to renewables,” he added.

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