CO2 deadlines loom for coal-powered plant operators

BISMARCK, N.D. --David Saggau has a dream that air-quality regulators had invited King Coal companies to solve the carbon-dioxide problem, invest in innovative research and development and share their know-how with the world.


BISMARCK, N.D. -David Saggau has a dream that air-quality regulators had invited King Coal companies to solve the carbon-dioxide problem, invest in innovative research and development and share their know-how with the world.

The alarm rings, his feet hit the floor and it's dream over. There's not even time to hit the snooze button.

The day-to-day reality for Saggau, who heads Great River Energy, with the largest coal-fired plant in North Dakota and for every other coal-fired plant operator here is a three-year deadline to show how they will collectively reduce CO2 by 45 percent.

North Dakota sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, challenging its authority to force these sweeping greenhouse gas reduction regulations onto the industry in its Clean Power Plan, released in final form in August. The suit will call for a federal review and may create some breathing room, but Saggau said his company isn't waiting around.

The company's customers want cleaner energy and have made that perfectly clear, Saggau said.


"The clean coal technology trend will not abate," he said.

Great River is a merger of two cooperatives headquartered in Minnesota that owns and operates the gigantic Coal Creek Station units at Underwood, with 1,200 megawatts, the Stanton Station with 190 megawatts and the Spiritwood Station at Jamestown, with 100 megawatts. Its customer base is in Minnesota, where a renewable energy policy has been in place for more than a decade, mandating that 25 percent of its energy mix come from renewable resources by 2025.

Regardless of any lawsuit and its merits, Great River will proceed: It has been working with CO2 working groups for years, examining the technology, the opportunities and the law. Now the time has come to quit examining and start implementing.

"We are in full compliance mode," he said.

There is no question that this will be the biggest technical challenge the industry's ever faced, Saggau said.

In all, the coal industry in North Dakota has invested $2 billion in original equipment and retrofits to improve air quality, according to the Lignite Energy Council.

"Carbon is the fuel," Saggau said. "This one is different because they're attacking the fuel itself."

So if carbon can't be taken out of the equation, the question is how the reduction would come about.



Front and center


Anyone with a quick-and-easy solution would be invited, if not shoved, to the front of the room, but, in reality, there isn't one.

Instead, meeting the new requirement will require a mixed strategy, possible plant retirements and intense negotiations among companies and state regulators because the 45 percent mandate has to be achieved collectively.

"What we're still analyzing is our different choices. We'll compare buying energy credits, blending more renewables, investing in more efficiencies, perhaps capturing CO2, building natural gas plants. All of those have different costs, and we're trying to get our arms around the true costs," Saggau said.

One example of an efficiency - one of Great River's proudest inventions - is its trademarked DryFining process that dries 30 percent of the water from lignite, requiring less coal for the same btus and reducing the Great River Coal Creek Station carbon profile by 4 percent.

That was a substantial "tweak," and there may be more that can be achieved.


Another is carbon capture. This requires the installation of equipment to capture the gas before it's emitted from the flue stack and divert it by pipeline to underground storage. SaskPower is capturing carbon at its coal plant outside Weyburn, Saskatchewan, not far north of Crosby, N.D., where it's injected into the same oil field where Dakota Gasification Co.'s captured carbon is piped for injection. More than 400,000 tons have been captured and delivered to date, according to a SaskPower spokesman.

That injection for enhanced oil recovery could have potential for the Bakken as the field ages and the technology advances, but that day has not arrived. One issue is that the process requires so much energy.

When Basin Electric Power Cooperative contemplated a $500 million demonstration capture project at its Antelope Valley Station several years ago, it learned that capturing the gas from a 100-megwatt stream would consume nearly one-third of the electrical output. It never did proceed, even with a $100 million Department of Energy clean coal grant in the wings.

"Capture is very expensive, and once you get it (the gas), what do you do with it?" Saggau asked. "I can see how it could work, but it would take a lot of players."


An unclear path


There are other reasons why the path forward is unclear.

"Coal is only the first CO2 emitter that's being targeted," said Saggau, who predicts natural gas will be next and companies that choose to blend that into their energy mix to draw down their targeted carbon load will eventually face the same environmental consequence.

If there's anything easing the frown on King Coal's forehead, it's that North Dakota will write its own implementation plan rather than allowing the EPA to write one.

"A state implementation plan can be a lot more flexible. I'm very optimistic that North Dakota is taking the right step. This has forced us (in the industry in North Dakota) to work even more together," he said.

In the end, Saggau said he hopes the industry - annually in North Dakota worth $1 billion in personal income, $3 billion in business revenue and almost $100 million in tax revenue, according to a 2014 North Dakota State University economic study - remains vibrant as a source of reliable, affordable energy.

"We need to keep our wits about us," he said.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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