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North Dakota's energy portfolio diverse, leaders say

The dragline shovel Chief Ironsides works alongside Highway 83 near the Great River Energy plant at Falkirk near Underwood, N.D. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Oil may be North Dakota's largest money maker when it comes to energy, but it certainly isn't the state's only source of income.

North Dakota ranks sixth nationwide in energy production, according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration. With almost 31.8 million barrels of oil, the Peace Garden State is the second-largest producer of oil, far behind first place Texas with 106.4 million barrels.

But industrialists have tapped other sources of energy in the state—coal, natural gas, wind and even solar—making it one of the largest producers and most diverse places in the country to capture natural resources.

The state has resources, and companies are willing to come in to tap them.

"However, around the world and around the United States, they have good resources but are not making use of them," said North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann, adding the state tries to encourage the use of natural resources. "We are doing a ton of energy production in North Dakota."

North Dakota's energy consumption is the lowest in the nation, and the state exports most of its products, according to the EIA. Though there are concerns when it comes to regulations and politics, leaders in all industries seem to agree: North Dakota has potential with little sign of slowing down.

Coal

Behind oil, coal is the largest energy resource in the state and rounds out the top five industries for the state, according to the state's Lignite Energy Council. The largest lignite deposit in the world is in McLean, Mercer and Oliver counties.

"That is always where the best wages are in the state," Christmann said of coal country.

As of May, North Dakota was the seventh-largest producer of coal in the U.S., pumping out 16.5 million tons for the year, according to Mining Media International. That was a 25.5 percent increase from the first five months of 2016. North Dakota produces about 30 million tons of coal annually.

About 71 percent of North Dakota's net electricity generation came from coal in 2016, according to the EIA.

The workforce has been steady, said Steve Van Dyke, vice president of communications for the Lignite Energy Council. However, it is going through a turnover because of retiring baby boomers.

"It's not that it is decreasing," he said. "You are just getting a younger workforce."

Both noted regulations that "strangled" the coal industry, with many industrialists fearing plants would be shut down.

That included the Stanton Station near Stanton, N.D., which faced significant improvements to make it efficient for low energy prices, according to the plant's owner, Great River Energy.

Stanton was burning Powder River Basin coal and not lignite, said Van Dyke, adding he hasn't heard if the closure affected the industry significantly.

He said the coal industry looks brighter because of the Trump administration, but there still are lingering concerns left over from the Obama administration, including court cases.

Wind

North Dakota ranks fifth in the nation in wind generation, according to the EIA, and it doesn't appear to be slowing down.

The state rarely has calm days, with multiple areas showing potential for wind development. More than 21 percent of the state's electrical energy came from the wind sector in 2016, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Of the 3,000 megawatts the state is capable of producing, about a third came online in the past 16 months, Christmann said.

"There is a ton of interest from developers and from utilities to continue to see that industry grow," said Chris Kunkle, a regional policy manager in the Midwest for Winds on the Wires. "We are seeing across the region and across the country that we are in the middle of a wind boom."

As wind becomes more competitive with other energy sources, there is a lot of potential to develop more wind in the state, Kunkle said. But there is resistance to wind development, with some believing it threatens the coal industry, he noted.

"That being said, North Dakota on the wind side is not the only state with a wind resource," he said, implying companies will go elsewhere if they feel unwelcome. "As long as North Dakota doesn't shoot itself in the foot, there is ample economic opportunity on the horizon."

Natural gas

North Dakota's natural gas production also has grown, increasing from about 80.4 trillion British thermal units in 2009 to 664.2 trillion Btus in 2015.

A large part of that was because of the state's ability to capture natural gas from oil wells. Flaring has been cut back to 12 percent, and the state set a record for gas production in July at almost 1.88 billion cubic feet, according to the state Department of Mineral Resources.

"Years ago, we were flaring 30 percent of the gas," Christmann said. "There is going to be some flaring. You need to keep some flaring going. ... But we've cut way back on it."

There has been expansion in the Bakken to turn natural gas into electricity. That includes the Public Service Commission's move in July to approve an expansion to the Wild Basin Gas Plant in McKenzie County, allowing it to increase production from 80 million standard cubic feet per day to 280 million standard cubic feet.

"This gas is a byproduct of the oil industry," Christmann said. "It will either be wasted by flaring it into the atmosphere or it will be processed into a usable, value-added product."

Solar power

North Dakota has a hand in solar energy, though it is limited.

The state ranked last as a producer, with zero of its consumed energy coming from the sun, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Still, there are 11 solar companies in the state, three of which are manufacturers and two that install panels.

The rest of the country has seen growth in solar panel installation, going from a capacity of almost zero megawatts in 2001 to almost 15,000 megawatts last year, according to the SEIA. But. it appears North Dakota's progress has slowed, if it boomed at all. The most capacity installed was in 2013 with 0.1 megawatts, and a fraction of that was installed in 2014. There was no activity in 2015 and only 28 homes are powered by solar, according to the SEIA.

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