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The power of coal generation

North Dakota is a proven energy state, with resources of lignite coal, oil, gas, wind and hydroelectric. We are shipping coal, oil and natural gas out of the state with pipelines, trains and electric power lines. Oil and natural gas have been in the news constantly since the development of horizontal drilling came to the state in 2008.

Wind farms have been popping up like stalks of corn in a farmer’s field. Hydropower has been produced at Garrison Dam since the 1950s. Lignite coal has been mined in North Dakota for more than 100 years and is the oldest
source of energy since the elimination of buffalo chips to warm farmsteads.

Talking coal power
In April, I attended a Lignite Energy Council conference in Bismarck N.D. The members of the Council include all companies that are part of the lignite coal industry in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada. Ulteig has been a member of the Council for many years, and I was fortunate to be the company representative for the conference.

My experience with coal for energy is limited to work I did early in my engineering career. A lot has changed in the industry over the past three decades, including the government’s position on the environment and the coining of the term “Dirty Coal.” If you follow the national news pundits, you would believe the coal industry is dying on the vine. I don’t believe that’s the case.

In 2012, the United States generated about 4,120 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. About 68% of that was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, petroleum), with 37% attributed to coal. From 1950 to 2012, electricity consumption grew from 334 billion to 4,120 billion kilowatt hours — an increase of 1,134%.

Coal-generation-052014Coal industry developments
I’ve had concerns about the coal industry in our state for the past five years, since some political rhetoric has centered on vilifying coal. Since the lignite industry has been a large part of Ulteig’s growth in North Dakota, my ears perked up when discussions centered on what the industry is doing in the state. Some highlights include:

  • The State of North Dakota has teamed up with the Lignite Research, Development and Marketing Program to develop projects to reduce nitrogen oxides, mercury and carbon dioxide from plant emissions.
  • Associates of the Lignite Energy Council project they will spend $1 billion in capital improvements between 2014 and 2016 in North Dakota.
  • North Dakota’s coal gasification plant, the only commercial installation of its kind in the U.S., will spend $400 million over the next three years to expand its product line by adding a urea plant to existing facilities.

There are concerns in the coal industry, though. The U.S. Government Accountability Office forecasts that by 2035, the power industry will retire up to 24% of U.S. coal generation. That calculates to 365 billion kilowatts of electricity. Based off some rough assumptions, this could be equivalent to the electricity needed for 8,306,000 homes, plus or minus 20%.

Adding to those concerns is wave of new and proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency recently, seeking to curb emissions common to coal. These regulations would expedite the retirement of coal power plants.

Can anything replace coal?
As I ponder some of the other options, I would have to believe coal is here to stay, as it is evident generation of electricity by coal cannot be replaced in its entirety. Natural gas power generation will be on the rise. However, it still produces carbon emissions that are approximately 50% of what coal produces. Is natural gas the next “dirty” fuel?

Nuclear power produces 19% of U.S. electricity, but there has not been a nuclear power plant built in the U.S. since the 1970s, and the production of nuclear cells stopped in the 1980s. The inventory of cells to run these plants is now becoming depleted.

Solar power production takes approximately 32 acres to produce enough electricity for 1,000 homes. To replace the amount of electricity being lost from the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants would require 1,936,000 acres, or 3,025 square miles.

Wind is the fastest-growing source of electrical generation in the United States. From 2003 to 2012, wind added 33.2 gigawatts of capacity, a 1,130% increase. But without energy storage, wind has a way to go before it can significantly replace coal.


  • Lignite Energy Council
  • The Western Energy Alliance
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO)
  • Congressional Research Center (CRC)

About the author

Bob is our account executive in the Government market. He has nearly four decades of experience in municipal engineering and development in rural areas, small towns and larger cities. He brings a wealth of expertise to help provide ideas that lead to long-term solutions for our clients.