Minnesota co-ops to vote on North Dakota power plant sale

A Minnesota electric company that wants to sell its financially troubled coal-fueled power plant in North Dakota expects to know Friday if its member utility cooperatives will endorse the deal that includes purchasing electricity over the next decade from the factory’s prospective buyer.

North Dakota officials have hailed the potential sale announced last month of Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station to Rainbow Energy Center as a savior for hundreds of jobs at the plant and an associated lignite coal mine that are about 50 miles north of Bismarck.

North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum called the announcement a “huge sigh of relief” for the plant and mine, nearby communities and workers. But opponents believe the sale is delaying an inevitable closure, as coal continues to be eliminated from energy portfolios and regulations mount to curb the climate change effects of burning the fuel.

The companies have not publicly disclosed terms of the deal, which includes an associated transmission line that runs more than 400 miles from central North Dakota to Minnesota.

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Maple Grove-based Great River supplies electricity to 28 rural Minnesota cooperatives, serving about 1.7 million people.

Company spokeswoman Therese LaCanne said the cooperatives have been holding meetings throughout July to discuss the sale. Two-thirds of the cooperatives must endorse the sale of the plant and transmission line, she said. A separate vote is required for the plan to purchase power from the 1,150-megawatt plant over the next 10 years.

“I anticipate we’ll know the outcome by the end of Friday,” LaCanne said.

The deal calls for Great River to purchase 1,050 megawatts in each of the first two years after the sale is finalized and 300 megawatts annually for the next eight years, LaCanne said.

Great River has called the plan to purchase power from the plant a “steppingstone” as it replaces energy with new wind farms in Minnesota.

Great River announced last year that it would close the power plant near Underwood in the second half of 2022.

The plant — the largest of seven in the state — will be replaced by a similar amount of wind energy by the end of 2023, after a $1.2 billion investment, the company said. The plant that has operated for more than 40 years employs 260 workers. North American Coal’s Falkirk Mine supplies lignite to the plant and employs about 500 workers.

Coal-fueled power plants in western North Dakota historically have provided a major share of Minnesota’s electric supply.

Great River said the Coal Creek plant lost $170 million in energy sales in 2019. The company had offered to sell the plant for just $1. The transmission line Great River has said a $130 million upgrade finished in 2019 to the line was one of the company’s most significant capital investments in years.

Rainbow Energy, which wants to purchase the plant and transmission line, buys surplus power from utilities and resells the electricity to other companies. It currently does not own electric wires, power stations or other utility infrastructure.

Rainbow is a subsidiary of Bismarck-based United Energy Corp., which also is involved in oil and gas production and exploration.

Rainbow Energy President Stacy Tschider has said that within five years of purchasing the plant, the company would incorporate technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions by injecting them underground for permanent storage.

Great River Energy has shuttered a coal-fire plant in North Dakota before. It closed its Stanton Station in 2017, saying it was too costly to operate. It was far smaller than Coal Creek and burned subbituminous coal from Montana.

Coal Creek burns lignite, a low-quality but abundant coal mined in North Dakota.