Renewables in the mix
Coalition cites need for broad energy focus
North Dakota’s energy future lies in clean energy from a mix of sources, according to industry panelists speaking at a Powering North Dakota virtual event Thursday.
Powering North Dakota, a statewide coalition of businesses and community leaders who support practical policies to expand wind and solar energy, held the panel in observance of American Clean Power Week. Powering North Dakota is an initiative of the American Clean Power Association.
“It wasn’t that long ago where we didn’t have much for renewable energy in North Dakota, and now we’re one of the top five leaders nationally in wind power,” said Al Anderson, director of the North Dakota Clean Sustainable Energy Authority. “So the focus has been good, but I think North Dakota’s plan to really challenge innovation and try to grow all of the different energy industries within the state is really paying off.”
The 2021 North Dakota Legislature created the Clean Sustainable Energy Authority, providing $25 million in grants and $250 million for low-interest loans for qualifying projects. The first round of applications closes Monday.
Anderson said he’s worked with prospective applicants on projects such as eliminating natural gas flaring, synthetic fuels production, carbon dioxide sequestration for ethanol and coal plants, hydrogen fuel production and battery management systems for renewable energy.
“It’s hitting all of the different areas of energy within the state, and I think that’s what’s going to be required to truly make a difference on our emissions,” he said.
As executive director for Forward Devils Lake Economic Development, Brad Barth said prospective companies often ask about the availability of clean energy.
“The fact that we have all of those aspects and avenues available as a state is a draw for us,” he said.
Jay Johnson, wind energy tech program director at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, said the impetus behind renewable energy development is that companies can make money and create jobs with wind and solar.
“The way that you persuade people to get behind renewables is to demonstrate that these sites mean employment for their family members,” he said.
Ryan Warner, co-founder of the Bismarck-based Lightspring, a provider of solar energy systems, noted the state’s coal plants are reaching the end of their design lives, creating a need to have frank discussions on how to move forward in a carbon-constrained environment. One way to do that is with small, renewable energy systems, he said.
“For a smaller scale installation, like a commercial size, or residential size, you don’t need transmission. You size those installations to meet the on-site consumption requirements of that business or that house,” he said. “As North Dakota deals with that transmission issue, I think the answer is to keep it small.”
Warner cited a 300-kilowatt solar installation at Cannonball that supports some of the community buildings.
“From that installation, we’ve seen lots of interest and build-outs of solar installations throughout North Dakota in Bismarck, Fargo Grand Forks, but also in rural areas,” he said. “It’s a way to diversify portfolio if you’re a farmer. It’s a great way to leverage the tax code if you’re a business owner. We’re just seeing really huge amounts of interest and actually having a bottleneck when it comes to the installation process, because there is so much interest we can’t service as many leads as we get.”
Smaller projects also encourage local investment, as opposed to larger investments from out of state that also take profits out of state, Warner said.
Of North Dakota’s production of 42 million megawatt hours of electricity, about 21 megawatt hours are exported, said John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority.
“That’s why the transmission system is so important,” he said. “We really do need that export to be a benefit to North Dakota from an economic development standpoint.”
Weeda added that about 30% of North Dakota’s electricity production for the past year was from renewable sources. However, he said the industry must adapt to utilize renewables in the portfolio.
Solar and wind complement each other but other energy pieces are needed to fill in the gaps associated with intermittent energy sources, he said. Additionally, there’s interest in making traditional energy sources carbon neutral or carbon negative, he said.
“So it is an exciting time to be in the energy industry in North Dakota, and I really emphasize the need for all of our energy sources to focus together,” he said.
Warner agreed energy stakeholders need to find the right mix.
At the federal level there is talk about “building back better,” Warner said, but he believes the emphasis should be on building to the right size.
“We can’t over-build but we also can’t under-build. We have to find that right Goldilocks zone in our infrastructure development,” he said. “What that means is we really have to figure out how to network all these different sources of energy and all these different stakeholders.”