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Feb 25, 2021
Originally published on February 25, 2021 4:38 pm

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, coal-burning power plants are closing. Wind turbines and solar farms are expanding. This transition cleans the air. It reduces greenhouse emissions. But it can also be painful. In North Dakota, some local officials are trying to keep a coal plant alive by blocking construction of new wind power. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Last year, Great River Energy, an electric cooperative in Minnesota, announced it was selling Coal Creek Power Station in central North Dakota. CEO David Saggau said if no buyer showed up, they'd shut the plant down in 2022.

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DAVID SAGGAU: This has been a heartbreaking decision for our organization.

CHARLES: If the plant closes, the coal mine next to it will, too. A thousand jobs will disappear. But Saggau told North Dakota's coal miners in this video that Coal Creek couldn't compete with cheaper electricity from plants burning gas.

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SAGGAU: We lost $170 million in 2019 on energy sales.

CHARLES: Closing the plant would cut those losses. It would also open up a new possibility. Beth Soholt could see it. She was director of the Clean Grid Alliance based in Minnesota.

BETH SOHOLT: I think we realized there was an opportunity right away.

CHARLES: It was an opportunity to tap North Dakota's wind energy. The wind is strong here and reliable, a powerful alternative to fossil fuels. If only there was a way to get that power to the places that want it.

SOHOLT: It's no secret that one of the barriers to development is a lack of transmission capacity to move the wind- or solar-produced electricity from where it's produced to where it needs to be used.

CHARLES: This is where Coal Creek Station comes in. It has a huge transmission line running from the heart of North Dakota all the way to Minneapolis. Closing the plant would free up that power line. And Great River Energy wanted to build huge wind farms around the station to take advantage of it. That's when Ladd Erickson stepped in. He's the attorney for McLean County, N.D., where the coal plant is located.

LADD ERICKSON: The transmission line is everything. It's the golden goose.

CHARLES: Erickson and other political leaders in North Dakota want to keep Coal Creek Station open. It's a pillar of the local economy, providing more local jobs than wind turbines will. They're looking for somebody willing to buy the plant and keep it running. And in the meantime, they don't want wind companies claiming that transmission line.

ERICKSON: Without a transmission line, there's no value in the plant.

CHARLES: Last year, two counties around the plant took steps to keep wind companies from getting access to the transmission line. One of them adopted restrictions on power lines from new wind farms. Another one passed a two-year moratorium on any new wind projects. And it worked. Great River Energy dropped its plans for wind farms in North Dakota. It also provoked opposition, at this meeting, for instance, of the Mercer County commissioners last July.

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GARY SCHEID: My name is Gary Scheid, and I'm a retired farmer.

CHARLES: He was hoping to rent some of his land to wind turbines.

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SCHEID: I cussed that frickin' (ph) wind for 50 years up north.

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SCHEID: This is an opportunity to maybe cash in a little bit on that wind.

CHARLES: And he was shocked that the county would stand in the way. Others, though, like Anna Novak, who's married to a miner, urged the county to keep up the fight to save coal power.

ANNA NOVAK: People are scared that they're going to lose their jobs and that Hazen and Beulah will become ghost towns.

CHARLES: A lot of the landowners who would profit from wind power don't even live here, she says. State officials say they're talking to several companies that are interested in buying the coal plant and might keep it running, burning coal. Others are skeptical. Coal Creek is losing so much money, they say, it's hard to see how that coal plant would suddenly make money for someone else. And in the meantime, the local blockade on wind development around Coal Creek Station remains. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUK'S "COCONUTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.