Touring the power of coal in North Dakota

by Nancy McReady
Each year Lake Country Power invites its co-op members on the three days/two nights Coal Creek Bus Tour to Bismarck, North Dakota.
Members from the Mountain Iron, Kettle River and Grand Rapids service areas all meet at Lake Country Power in Grand Rapids to board the coach bus. This year from Ely, Doug and Nancy McReady made their second trip to Coal Creek, and Andrew and Suzi Jackson had their first trip. There were rest stops and a lunch stop along the way to Bismarck, and even trivia and bingo games with prizes to pass the time.
Upon arrival at our hotel destination of Staybridge Suites Bismarck, members had a short period of time to freshen up before boarding the bus again and going to the Bismarck Municipal Country Club for a group dinner. This dinner was included in the price of the tour package of $170/person.
The touring morning began at 7 a.m. with an hour ride to the Falkirk Mine where 8 million tons of lignite coal is mined yearly to supply Coal Creek Station, the largest power plant in North Dakota.
The coal is less than 200 feet in the ground. The equipment to mine the coal is three times the size of taconite mine equipment. The shovels have 63 cubic yard buckets to load the trucks with two scoops. Lignite coal is relatively light, so truck loads usually weighed less than 200 tons. One thing Doug noticed on the shovels was how lightweight the booms were compared to shovels at taconite mines.
It was interesting to hear that the entire mine area is GPSed before mining was begun so the land could be reclaimed to its original condition. You couldn’t tell which areas had been mined and which had not been mined. Twin Metals has said they will reclaim the land in this same way after mining.
Members were able to get off the bus and pick pieces of coal to take home in plastic bags as sovereigns. In order to preserve the lumps of coals for Christmas stocking giving, they will have to be sprayed with a clear coat spray to keep it from drying out and crumbling.
The next stop was at the Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station power plant. The high-voltage direct current electric transmission and generation cooperative provides electricity to Minnesota’s Lake Country Power. Great River Energy’s service area extends from the Arrowhead of Minnesota to southern Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin. It was determined it would be less expensive to transmit electricity over a long distance than to haul coal. That is why the power plant was built near the Falkirk coal mine near Underwood, North Dakota. The 436 miles of transmission line begin at a converter station at Coal Creek Station and ends at the Dickinson Converter Station, near Buffalo, Minnesota.
An interesting byproduct of burning coal is fly ash which is used to make a lighter and stronger cement-like product. In fact, the Minnesota Twin Target Stadium and Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis utilized fly ash in their construction.
Collecting fly ash has proven to be good for our environment by keeping our air cleaner, relieves the burden on landfills and by adding fly ash to concrete reduces greenhouse gases. Cement production is energy-intensive and results in about one ton of greenhouse gas emissions for every ton of cement produced.
Adjacent to the Coal Creek Station is Blue Flint Ethanol. It is the first co-located, directly integrated ethanol plant in the United States. The reason is because of steam.
Steam is a by-product of generating electricity at Coal Creek Station. This excess steam is used to heat corn and turn it into liquid which is an essential step in making ethanol. Blue Flint uses state-of-the-art technology to exceed the high standards set by the EPA. The facility has zero discharge, and produces no solid or liquid waste. By using steam from Coal Creek Station, Blue Flint uses less water and produces fewer emissions than a typical plant. This location makes Blue Flint the most cost effective, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly ethanol plants in the country.
On this tour we also learned about Spiritwood Station plant near Jamestown, North Dakota. This is a combined heat and power plant, the first of its kind in the country. Spiritwood produces steam that powers the Dakota Spirit ethanol bio refinery, and generates up to 99 megawatts of electricity for homes, farms and businesses.
Spiritwood Station uses DryFine lignite coal and natural gas to generate steam and electricity. DryFine lignite is a higher-efficiency fuel which is processed at Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station near Underwood. Silos at Coal Creek Station store the DryFine and ship it to Spiritwood Station by enclosed rail cars.
The last stop on this energy tour was at the Garrison Dam, the fifth largest earthen dam in the world. It was built in 1953. It has five turbines and generates between about 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.
Before heading back to our hotel, we also stopped at the Fort Mandan Visitor Center. We learned about Lewis and Clark wintering there in 1804. It was interesting to see that the construction of the visitor center utilized fly ash cement.
The entire tour was very interesting and educational, and I would encourage other Lake Country Power members to sign up for it next year. It would also be very beneficial for our state legislators to visit Coal Creek Station and learn where a majority of our state’s electricity is coming from, and just how reliable and clean coal generation electricity really is.