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Coal prepares for carbon-free future as industry pushes developing commercially viable programs

From left, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., speak Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, to energy industry representatives at the Great Plains & Empower ND Energy Conference in Bismarck. Photo by Jessica Holdman / Bismarck Tribune1 / 2
Jason Bohrer, president of the Lignite Energy Council, addresses attendees at the council's annual meeting in Bismarck in April 2016. File photo by Jessica Holdman / Bismarck Tribune2 / 2

BISMARCK — The North Dakota coal industry is aiming to change the face of energy technology research as it moves toward a carbon-free future.

"We're going to proceed as if it's on the horizon because it is on the horizon," Lignite Energy Council President Jason Bohrer said of carbon-dioxide regulation. "We know CO2 rules are coming."

In order to meet the challenges in energy development, there needs to be a change in research and development philosophies in the state, according to Bohrer.

"We could become the place that doesn't just identify new technology. We could be the place (companies) come to demonstrate and prove technology," he said.

In support of that vision, the EmPower Commission, a group of representatives from the state's energy industries formed to develop North Dakota's energy policy, identified a gap in large-scale commercial demonstrations.

While a lot of lab-based research has been done in the state, no commercial-scale trials have been implemented to deploy technologies into the field. And the Lignite Vision 21 Program, which was created to help fund new lignite energy facilities, caps its projects at $10 million.

"We fund it up to where it's time to push it out of the lab," Bohrer said. "We can't build unproven, but promising, technology."

So, the LEC is planning to ask the legislature to develop a new program to do just that.

Historically, North Dakota has not been the place where industry builds billion dollar research projects: One disadvantage is the distance from other major energy development that has taken place in Texas. Most companies, to date, build in Texas or outside the country.

Having a way to help fund a commercial trial might be one way to spur that type of investment in North Dakota, according to Bohrer.

The next step

Project Tundra, started by NRG Energy, could provide a starting point.

When oil prices stagnated, NRG ended its work on Project Tundra and ALLETE Inc. and Minnkota Power Cooperative took up where they left off. Now, the goal of Project Tundra is a large scale retrofit of Minnkota's Milton R. Young Station near Center with scrubbers to capture carbon emitted by the plant.

To date, carbon-capture technologies have been deployed commercially on smaller scales, including a 115-megawatt unit of Boundary Dam Power Station near Estevan, Saskatchewan, and on a 240-megawatt project at Petra Nova Parish Holdings LLC's W.A. Parish power plant near Houston, which NRG is a partner on.

So far, the project is counting on U.S. Department of Energy and industry funding, but, with new programming, the state could play a role.

Ideally, the coal industry's proposed new energy investment program would have $250 million to $300 million funded for 10 years. Bohrer said industry would like to make the fund permanent through taxes on coal extraction. Also, like the LRC, Bohrer said industry envisions it with peer review and project vetting.

Industry understands the 2017-19 budget may not allow for the program to be funded now, but it would like to create the program so it will be ready when money is available, according to Bohrer.

Transformative technology

The program would not be limited to coal projects: It would cover "any large-scale transformative energy technology," Bohrer said.

For renewables, that could include large-scale battery storage for intermittent wind and solar power or cellulosic ethanol for the biofuel industry.

"Our utilities own a lot of wind," said Bohrer of an industry that is working to balance competing goals of using wind power and maintaining coal power efficiency.

When the wind blows, wind is a cheap and clean form of energy. But having to ramp coal plants up and down to adjust for when the wind isn't blowing decreases plant efficiency. The development of large-scale battery storage could help, putting North Dakota's utilities at the forefront in addressing the challenge of integrating wind without disrupting ongoing operations at coal plants, Bohrer said.