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Battle of the resources: Coal and wind energy abundance fuels use debate

Courtesy Photo A hilltop view of Montana-Dakota Utilities' Cedar Hills Wind located near Rhame. The turbines started spinning in early June.

While North Dakota is known for its oil, it is not the only major resource in the state.

Coal and wind energy have the potential to produce vast quantities of electricity, officials said Friday; however, there is a debate on which is


North Dakota can produce up to 1.2 trillion kWh of electricity each year, which is enough to power more than a quarter of the country, according to Windustry, a Minneapolis-based organization that promotes wind energy development.

North Dakota has some of the largest reserves for lignite coal used for electricity, said Daryl Hill, Basin Electric Power Cooperative supervisor of media and communications relations. He added there are eight plants for producing electricity from lignite in the state.

"There is enough lignite in the state to fuel all those plants for the next 800 years," he said. "That is a lot of coal."

Hill said coal is a domestic, affordable resource that is economical. But a disadvantage is environmental regulations.

Windustry executive director and founder Lisa Daniels said North Dakota has a "wonderful wind resource," but there are reasons it is not utilized as much as it should be.

"North Dakota has a lot of wind energy which it could develop, but the politics of putting more wind energy into North Dakota means that either you avoid using some coal for the existing energy that is required or you sell it externally through the state," Daniels said. "The coal industry controls both."

Daniels said wind speeds of about 12 mph are needed to power a wind turbine. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that western North Dakota has an average wind speed of 12-1/2 mph to 18 mph. While the state is in the process of utilizing wind energy, she said it could do more.

"Most of the utilities in North Dakota produce their electricity or get their electricity from coal generated power plants," Daniels said.

Fargo resident Joe Richardson, who has worked on wind policies and development, said that simply having wind energy isn't enough.

"The problem is transmitting that energy out of North Dakota," he said. "We are kind of the largest stranded power resource in the country or in the world."

Richardson said it takes years to develop infrastructure for capturing wind energy. He also agreed politics has pull on how it is developed, mostly preventing its development.

"We are in the process of losing this opportunity," he said.

While wind is free, getting started isn't cheap. Hill said each wind tower costs approximately $3 million. Also, there isn't a guarantee with wind energy.

"What do you do when the wind isn't blowing?" Hill said.

Daniels added Texas, like North Dakota, produces oil, but they also produce wind energy.

"They get that energy is energy, and diversifying your resources is a good thing," she said. "Texas is an energy exporting state."

Hill said in response that everyone has their arguments.

"Everybody has a story to tell, and they want to make sure it is being heard," he said.

Hill said there is a place for wind energy, adding North Dakota is the no. one wind resource state in the nation, but it is still under development, despite its explosive start.

"When you look wind generation, it can be a very valuable resource as well," he said. "When wind is available, and the need is there, you can use that wind generation to displace other fuels."

Hill, Richardson and Daniels did agree on one thing: To build it, there has to be a demand and a way to get it out of the state. Otherwise, there is no sale.