Coal Country bets on carbon capture moonshot

Technology could provide salvation, if it works

Coal Country bets on carbon capture moonshot

Nearly 20,000 residents of Coal Country in Mercer, McLean, and Oliver counties sit at the crosshairs of the energy transition.

From West Virginia, to Beulah, to China, coal workers and their communities could disappear if decarbonization goals are met without carbon-free coal power in the mix.

The United States’ goal is a carbon neutral electricity grid by 2035 under Biden administration plans, and net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. South Africa’s goals are similar, shooting for carbon neutrality by 2050. China’s net-zero goal is 2060 and India aims for 2070.

“We are very attuned to what is happening politically in the nation and what the view is on coal,” said Jerry Obenauer, mayor of Hazen, in an interview at city hall. “Are we ready? If it is gone tomorrow, I don’t know what we will do … other than a lot of people move away, a lot of businesses close, and we become a very, very much different community than we are now.”

Project Tundra moonshot

For communities like Hazen to remain viable, future energy mixes must include coal, many in Coal Country say. If no other energy sources can provide reliable baseload power, it’s likely coal will have a role for some time to come.

However, a future for coal will require innovation to capture carbon dioxide before it leaves the power plants’ exhaust stacks. The current technology for carbon capture and storage [CCS) is developed but it is also extremely expensive.

North Dakota’s potential solution is Project Tundra, an estimated $1.4 billion project that aims to capture and store up to 90 percent of the carbon emissions at the Milton R. Young Station, a 700-megawatt powerhouse near Center.

“I think a lot of people are really excited about carbon capture,” said Anna Novak, co-founder of a Facebook group Faces of North Dakota Coal that advocates for Coal Country.

Novak discounts that the country is in the process of fully transitioning to green energy sources, pointing out that fossil fuels remain the major power player on the electrical grid. She believes North Dakota will continue to be a main provider of power going forward.

“I do not think it’s going to happen,” Novak said of the potential for the energy transition to devastate North Dakota’s coal region.

“As I said about carbon capture, that’s huge, that’s huge for us. The [North Dakota] legislature has been very supportive of the coal industry, because of the jobs and tax revenue that it creates. Between oil, coal and natural gas, that makes up around 50 percent of the state’s budget. So, you know, it’s a big deal for our state,” said Novak.

All or nothing

The success of Project Tundra could determine the fate of communities in North Dakota’s Coal Country. But will it work? And if it does, will other power producers pony up for the billion-dollar retrofits?

“There’s never been a commercial-scale carbon capture coal plant, ever, that’s worked,” said Scott Skokos, director of the Dakota Resource Council, a nonprofit based in Bismarck focused on sustainable resources.

Technology trials at Petra Nova CCS in Texas and Boundary Dam CCS in southern Saskatchewan have not proved effective over long periods.

Petra Nova, the only operating CCS project at a coal power facility in the US, mothballed its capture operations in 2020 after struggling due to low oil prices and at least 367 days of outages since it started in 2017. That project was designed to capture carbon for injection in aging oil fields to enhance oil recovery.

While Boundary Dam has been a bit more successful, it too is struggling. Data from SaskPower, the province’s primary electric utility, found that the plant captured 43 percent fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 than the year before.

Over the past 12 months Boundary Dam captured on average 40 percent of the CO2 emitted by the plant.

“They’re really looking at this like it's a Hail Mary, an emerging technology that they’ve figured out, and we don’t know that,” Skokos said. “And that’s what’s troubling is that we’re going all in rather than hedging our bets.”

For Coal Country, going all in may be the only option. Closing coal plants would wipe out communities’ economies. Attracting alternate industries is a tough sell given that companies across the state and the country are short workers even for good paying jobs.

Even the possibility that more coal plants may shut down in the next 10, 20, 30 years already impacts Coal Country.

“One thing you’re seeing in the area is, you don’t find a lot of the new employees living here. They’re commuting from Bismarck,” said John Phillips, president of the Coal Conversion Counties Association and long-time development director of the city of Beulah.

“That’s been going on for six, or seven years, and purely because they felt the stability of the area wasn’t enough to justify building new housing,” said Phillips. “They were saying that they could always sell their house in Bismarck, but if we have a real downturn here, will we sell our home? Probably not and not for the inflated price they’re paying now.”

Tapping IRA funds

There may be no better time than now to go all in on CCS to stabilize Coal Country. Under the Carbon Reduction Program, tax credits for the capture and storage of carbon emissions have jumped from $50 per ton to $85 per ton through expansions introduced in the Inflation Reduction Act.

An estimated 4 million tons of carbon captured and stored each year would essentially mean $340 million in tax credits for Minnkota Power Cooperative, which will operate the facility. That adds up to $4.2 billion over the 12-year life of the tax credit, enough to cover costs and more if the capture goal is achieved.

“At the end of the 12-year period, the project will be paid for, so at that point we’d have to make an assessment,” said Minnkota Power Cooperative spokesperson Ben Faldhammer.

“There’s a lot of different things that could happen at the end of that 12 year period, perhaps they extend the tax credit as they’ve done with wind and solar, or perhaps there’s a price on carbon that makes it advantageous for us to operate the facility.”

Coal Country faces strong headwinds, but it does have some strong wind breaks, too. It’s well positioned since power plants here are economical mine-mouth operations and because there are growing concerns about maintaining baseload reliability on the electrical grid.

There are no plans to build any new coal fired power plants in the US and at least 28 percent of existing plants could be retired by 2035, according to the US Energy Information Administration, That alone would leave what remains as important sources of reliable power.

Adding to that is the fact that South Africa, China and India are all increasing new coal power capacity along with the net carbon emissions they emit in the short term, peaking over the next decade, and declining afterwards.

“China isn’t going to be an innovator in reducing emissions, we have to take the lead on it,” said Novak. “And I believe we are taking the lead on it, because if people really want to make a difference, we have to innovate because we can’t affect what they do over there, and if the technology isn’t available, they’re certainly not going to be the ones [to start].”

Faldhammer also pointed to the potential to export CCS technology to regions in need of solutions to their own energy transition challenges.

“That’s really our larger goal in that we would like to see carbon capture technology advance across the world,” said Faldhammer. “If you read what is being said by leading climate scientists, carbon capture is going to be needed as we make this energy transition.”

Hopefully, he said, the Project Tundra experience will lead to the next project, and the project after that, becoming so efficient and cost effective it makes sense to install CCS technology at facilities everywhere.

On the storage side, Faldhammer said that Project Tundra has its permits finalized and the Environmental Protection Agency has approved monitoring, reporting and verification plans.

The remaining hurdles are to get final financing – buoyed by the attractive $85-ton tax credits – and complete the advanced engineering and design plans.

“We certainly hope that this project is successful and serves as a blueprint for the advancement of carbon capture technologies here in North Dakota, and really, across the world,” said Faldhammer.”

No final date has been set for an official start-up and actual capture and storage of carbon at the Milton Young Station, but construction should begin next year. Success could eventually mean other coal plants are able to adopt the technology, keeping them viable for years to come.

If not, there may be few other options.

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