Lignite coal is mined at the Freedom Mine in Buelah, North Dakota in 2007. (AP Photo / James MacPherson, File) Click to enlarge
North Dakota is famous for its shale oil and gas reserves – the Bakken Shale has created boom towns, fueled the state’s economy and even changed the railroad industry as trains transport the shale products cross-country.
But North Dakota is also heavily invested in another fossil fuel – massive reserves of lignite coal. And even as coal plants close nationwide and cities and states adopt policies curbing the use of coal-fired power, North Dakota is still fiercely protective of its coal – which provides almost 80 percent of the state’s energy, major electricity exports to neighboring states, and scores of mining and related jobs.
Elected officials and industry backers don’t plan to shift their focus on coal, they say, despite impending EPA rules for new and existing coal plants which could make things much more difficult for the state’s industry.
North Dakota is sparsely populated, with only about 700,000 residents. And while the shale boom has created significant electricity demand, North Dakota’s seven coal plants still export a majority of their energy to neighboring states – and such exports are crucial to the plants’ economics.
Stacy A. Cook, Vice President and General Manager of Koda Energy, at the combined heat and power biomass plant in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Craig Lassig for Midwest Energy News. (click to enlarge)
When airborne dust ignited a silo explosion last spring at a biomass cogeneration plant in Minnesota, it was a major setback for the pioneering energy facility.
But the blast’s impact on Koda Energy’s bottom line was a blip compared to the prolonged strain of operating in an energy market that’s been turned upside down by fracking and cheap natural gas.
When a tribal government announced a partnership in 2006 to build the $60 million plant with one of the world’s largest malting companies, Rahr Malting Co., they were coming off a winter when spot prices for natural gas topped $13 per million Btu.
By the time the power plant began operating in May 2009, natural gas prices had plunged below $4. A few years later, in the spring of 2012, spot prices would briefly dip below $2.
(Photo by Prizmatic via Creative Commons)
A bill likely to be voted on today in the Minnesota legislature would establish the right of certain homeowners to put solar panels atop their roofs.
Specifically, the language – which is now included as part of a large omnibus environmental bill – would ensure that right for members of homeowners associations (HOAs) who own their roofs. [UPDATE: The bill was approved by the Minnesota House on Wednesday]
That amounts to about 20 percent of members of homeowners associations statewide, or an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 households, according to state Rep. Will Morgan, who introduced the bill. The rest live in multi-family units, in which they share ownership of the structure’s exterior.
Fresh Energy, where Midwest Energy News is based, has advocated on behalf of the legislation.
Homeowners associations and municipalities across the country have attempted to restrict the installation of solar panels, leading to conflict, litigation and legislation in many communities and states.
A federal judge on Friday struck down a portion of Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act, according to a report from Minnesota Public Radio.
Officials in North Dakota had challenged a provision of the law that required carbon emissions to be offset for new coal-fired electricity imported into the state. U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson sided with North Dakota, saying the law violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In a news release, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said the state will appeal the decision.
“I will defend the State of Minnesota’s right to protect the quality of the air our citizens breathe. The State Statute does not prevent anyone from building and operating a new power-generating facility, whose toxic emissions will affect Minnesota’s air quality. It only requires that those new emissions must be offset by the same or greater reduction in emissions from other plants. In other words, Minnesota’s law encourages the replacement of older, more-polluting power plants with more efficient, cleaner facilities.”
Read the full story from MPR here.
Read additional coverage from the Minneapolis Star Tribune here.
Read the judge’s ruling here.
(Photo by Rob Rudloff via Creative Commons)
On its surface, Minnesota’s new value of solar law appears to contain a major loophole.
The law creates a methodology for utilities to calculate a rate for customer-generated solar power, based on avoided infrastructure, pollution and other costs.
However, the value of solar rate is voluntary. Utilities have the option of paying the new rate or continuing with the existing net metering policy, which compensates customers with small arrays at the retail rate.
The issue — whether customers or utilities should make that choice — was a bone of contention during the extensive stakeholder process to develop the policy, and remains so today.
In testimony to the Public Utilities Commission, Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, estimated a value of solar rate of 14.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Meanwhile, Xcel’s residential retail rate is 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
So if the value of solar rate is higher than the retail rate, would utilities actually adopt it?
The answer, most likely, is yes, according to a new analysis released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Connie Bonniwell of Robbinsdale, Minnesota holds a protest sign during a 2013 Public Utilities Commission meeting on an Enbridge pipeline expansion. (AP Photo / Star Tribune / David Joles)
Marty Cobenais has been to every state along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, organizing resistance to the project from Montana to Texas.
He’s been arrested twice for civil disobedience during Keystone XL protests in front of the White House.
Now, the Bemidji man believes it’s time for pipeline activists around the country to turn their attention to his own backyard in northern Minnesota.
A trio of major pipeline projects proposed by Canadian fuel transporter Enbridge have been moving forward in Minnesota, mostly below the national radar.
“We need the national attention in Minnesota,” Cobenais said. Minnesota has sent busloads of protestors to Nebraska and Washington, D.C., he said. Now, “they should be here with us, too.”
(Photo by PXLated via Creative Commons)
A legislative reform moving ahead in Minnesota aims to better position the state to become a wind energy exporter.
Minnesota has long been a wind energy leader. The state has nearly 3,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, ranking it seventh in the nation.
Almost all of it’s been built for Minnesota customers. The state exports relatively little wind energy compared to neighboring Iowa or North Dakota.
It’s not for lack of resources. Minnesota has enough land and wind to conceivably generate nearly 500,000 megawatts of wind power.
“We have more [potential] wind energy in the state than we can develop ourselves, and we should use that resource,” said Ben Gerber, energy policy manager for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “If we didn’t develop this it would be like North Dakota only developing the oil they needed in their state to meet their own needs.”
Over the last several months, Gerber worked with the wind industry and environmental groups to identify and target a potential regulatory barrier that may be deterring developers from trying to sell Minnesota wind energy into other states.
This solar array near Slayton, Minnesota provides power for Xcel Energy. Geronimo Energy is proposing similar projects to help meet peak energy needs. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)
A proposed $250 million distributed solar project appears to have held its own in a Minnesota regulatory process that put it in competition with three natural gas options.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday ordered Xcel Energy to pursue a power-purchase agreement with a Twin Cities solar developer to meet part of its projected generation shortfall later this decade.
Geronimo Energy’s 100 megawatt solar proposal will be paired with one or more natural gas projects, to be determined later, to provide up to 500 megawatts of new generation Xcel expects to need by 2019.
The agreements would be subject to further review by the PUC.
“It’s a big win for us,” said Betsy Engelking, a vice president at Geronimo Energy. “We participated in an RFP against natural gas and we were selected.”
The Boswell Energy Center near Cohasset, Minnesota. (Photo © Steve Roberts, used with permission)
The Sierra Club is repeating a threat of a lawsuit against a northern Minnesota utility, alleging thousands of pollution violations at its coal-fired power plants.
Minnesota Power is the latest Midwest utility to face a legal threat from the Sierra Club over alleged soot or particulate violations under the Clean Air Act. The environmental group has filed similar complaints against St. Louis-based Ameren and Detroit’s DTE Energy.
A letter of intent delivered to Minnesota Power late last week says the company committed more than 12,000 air quality violations at three facilities between 2009 and 2013.
“We clearly dispute what they’re claiming,” said Minnesota Power spokesman Pat Mullen.