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Power generated by wind adds to grid, but it’s still backup to coal in North Dakota

Wind towers start going up on Brady Wind I. (Press Photo by Dustin Monke)

BISMARCK—The 300 megawatts of power soon to be generated by 159 wind turbines in Stark and Hettinger counties won't necessarily power homes and businesses in North Dakota or any other specific place, power purchaser Basin Electric Power Cooperative says.

Basin Electric will take the energy produced and put it into the energy grid.

"The grid is like a network," said Matthew Stoltz, Basin Electric manager of transmission services. "We inject power into the grid. But once it's injected, it's like a spiderweb and the power just flows, via the laws of physics, to where it's consumed."

Basin Electric currently uses 1,532 megawatts generated by wind turbines with another 726 megawatts in committed projects set to come online in southwest North Dakota alone.

Basin Electric integrated into the Southwest Power Pool in October. It operates and sells power within the SPP, which encompasses North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming.

Stoltz said the grid is not specific to one company. It is shared by all companies and all consumers.

"When you plug in your computer or when your air conditioner runs, it's not because you are a customer of MDU (Montana-Dakota Utilities). You're not using energy from a MDU plant," he said. "You don't really know where your power is coming from. We know what comes in and we know what comes out."

Coal produces more power

While wind is used on the grid, it can only be produced and be a viable source when the wind is blowing.

Stoltz said wind's production possibility is the least during winter and summer when electricity is needed the most and the wind blows the least. In the winter, wind only accounts for 23 percent of power used on the grid.

The energy source that carries the baseload of the energy grid need is coal.

"What you want for cheap generation is something that will run continuously, really cheaply, and coal power plants do that really well," Stoltz said. "They just love to run and run and run, dump coal in there and it's really cheap. Plants are expensive to build. There's a lot of equipment and material. They are very expensive. Capital cost is high, the running cost is low and you just run those as hard as you can. In a perfect world, you would just run coal continuously and then when the loads pick up, you go to what is called intermediate demand."

Coal is Basin Electric's largest energy-producing commodity on the grid, making up 56.4 percent of its generation.

Stoltz said natural gas is used for intermediate demand because gas plants are cheap to build and are cheap to run when the price of gas is low.

However, both coal and natural gas have came under review since President Barack Obama announced the Clean Power Plan on Aug. 3, 2015.

The plan produced the Clean Energy Incentive Program to reward renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, and limit use of fossil fuels and their emissions.

North Dakota Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer said he believes there has been a conscious effort to push out coal energy all together, which he said isn't feasible.

"If you covered the whole state of North Dakota in wind farms, there would be times when the wind didn't blow," he said. "We don't think that way, but there's a lot of times when the wind doesn't blow."

Cramer, who has advised the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on energy policy, said he advised Trump to have "a true, all-of-the-above, level-playing-field policy" on energy.

"What I've suggested to him is to allow the production tax credit for wind and renewables to expire and it will," he said. "It's got about three more years of a lifespan before it's down to zero and let that happen, but look to the tax code for a possible way to reward or incentives American made energy, which I think he is all about."

'Wind is variable'

Brady Wind Energy Center I, the 87-turbine wind farm in southern Stark County, was hotly contested and culminated a year of landowner disputes with a record-breaking 15-hour Public Service Commission on March 31.

The PSC unanimously voted to approve the wind farm on June 16. Brady Wind II was approved July 6 and construction on both projects is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

While North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk said he believes the grid has to keep its stability.

"I'm starting to getting concerned about the retirement of baseload power, meaning coal and nuclear, around the country because wind, in the best scenarios, is available half of the time," Kalk said.

Kalk said all energy sources have positives and negatives, though he's worried about the amount of wind farms starting to replace nonrenewable energy.

"We are at a point where things can tip if we aren't careful," he said. "It's just right now we are at that point where everyone has been throwing so much wind in the grid across the country that nobody has modeled the true effect of the stability."

Stoltz said Basin Electric is trying to produce the best energy for its consumers.

"We just want to sell the cheapest, most reliable power to our members that we can," he said. "Wind is variable. Wind will just start blowing. You have to accept that injection but back down something else. Wind and gas work really well together because if wind picks up, gas can back down."

There's currently no way to store power generated by wind, so Stoltz said there are some days where Basin Electric must cut down the amount of wind power it uses because it could overload the grid.

"My opinion is what wind is is a fuel replacement," he said. "So when the wind is blowing, you don't have to burn natural gas. We're in a market now, so we are very sensitive to how much stuff costs."

Cramer said North Dakota is good at producing wind farms because the state is good at coal.

"We are good at citing and developing energy resources at a state," he said. "We are also good at that because we are good agrarians. Natural resources is what we have been about as an economy since the first pioneers came here. Wind has a rich place, no question about it."

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