Energy Sources: History, Selection, and Transitions

Energy Production in North Dakota

North Dakota is fortunate to have nearly all of the major energy sources, and many in good supply: coal, petroleum, natural gas, hydropower, biofuels (liquid and gas), wind, geothermal (ground-source heat), solar, and potential hydrogen production from wind (Figure 9). The total energy produced in North Dakota in 2006 was equivalent to 724 trillion Btu, or one percent of the total production in the U.S. (131). The state has a low total consumption rate (411 trillion Btu in 2006) compared to other states because of its small population, but North Dakota has one of the highest per capita consumption rates (644 million Btu), ranking fourth in the nation (131). This is due to the large amount of energy required for heating along with the high energy input required for agriculture and other industries (131). The price paid for electricity in North Dakota in 2006, $6.55 per kWh for residential users, is among the lowest in the nation; electricity is twice as expensive in New England, for example (132).

Figure 9. Energy sources and pipelines in North Dakota.


Energy Sources

Coal. Coal-fired plants produce nearly all of the electricity used in North Dakota. Six mining operations are currently running in the state, producing 30 million short tons of lignite coal annually (as of 2008) (131, 133). The largest coal mines (and their annual production) are: Freedom (15.0 million short tons), Falkirk (7.8 million tons), Center (4.5 million tons), and Beulah (3 million tons) (134, 18). With the single largest lignite deposit in the world, North Dakota has 25 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves, or about 800 years’ worth at the current rate of production, according to a North Dakota Geological Survey estimate (15).

Seven coal-fired power plants are in operation in North Dakota, generating 2.7 million MWh (131). These stations (and their generating capacities) include: Coal Creek (1,100 MW), Antelope Valley (900 MW), Milton R. Young (705 MW), Leland Olds (656 MW), Coyote (414 MW), Stanton (202 MW), and Heskett (100 MW) (135, 136). A 99 MW coal-fired plant is under construction near Spiritwood. This plant is designed to be one of the cleanest in the world, and able to run at 40-66 percent efficiency as compared to most plants, which run at 30-35 percent efficiency (137).

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant uses thirteen percent of North Dakota’s yearly coal production to produce synthetic natural gas. This is the only commercial-scale coal gasification plant in the U.S., producing 54 billion cubic feet per year, most of which is piped to eastern states (135, 136). This plant also has the largest CO2 capture program in the world. Starting in 2000, CO2 emissions have been reduced at the plant by nearly 49 percent (136).

A coal-drying plant at the Coal Creek Station removes water from high-moisture lignite coal, increasing its heating value, which improves the efficiency of the power plant by five percent. This process also reduces CO2 emissions (138). Another coal-drying plant along with a gasification plant and a coal mine is in the planning stages near South Heart (139).

American Lignite Energy has proposed to build a $2 billion coal-to-liquid fuels plant in western North Dakota that would produce synthetic gasoline and jet fuel. This plant would produce 32,000 barrels daily, using 10 million tons of lignite coal per year (140).

Petroleum. Oil was first discovered in North Dakota near Tioga in 1951. About 3,200 wells produced almost 63 million barrels in 2008, more than any other year (141). Since 2004, oil production has grown an average of 11 percent a year (142). An April 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Bakken formation contains 3.1 to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil using today’s methods (141, 143). This is only one to two percent of the oil present in the formation. New technologies and more information about the reservoir will allow for the recovery of oil for many years (141).

The Tesoro Refinery at Mandan is the only oil refinery in the state. It processes up to 60,000 barrels of oil per day using oil from the Williston Basin. Products include gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, propane, and butane. Forty percent of the gasoline produced is used in North Dakota; the rest is piped to Minnesota (144). A new refinery on the Fort Berthold Reservation has been proposed that would process 15,000 barrels per day of Canadian synthetic crude oil. If built, this refinery would be the first constructed in the U.S. in 30 years (131).

Natural Gas. Along with the synthetic natural gas from the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, natural gas is also produced by 200 gas wells in the state (2006). Nearly 71 billion cubic feet of natural gas was extracted in 2007 (145). There are nine gas-processing plants where natural gas, butane, and propane are separated. Most of the product is piped out of state through the two regional gas pipelines that cross the state from northwest to southeast (131). Propane is also produced in processing natural gas, as well as in refining crude oil at the Tesoro Refinery.

Hydropower. The fifth largest plant in electrical generation capacity in the state is one that uses a renewable energy source. The Garrison Dam on the Missouri River was completed in 1954. It has a nameplate capacity of 515 MW and produces an average of 240 MW of electricity with five generators. Two miles long and 210 feet high, the dam is the fifth largest earthen dam in the world (146).

Biomass. A wide variety of agricultural products are grown in North Dakota that may be processed into biofuels (Figure 10). In 2008, about 285 million bushels of corn were harvested (153), a record amount, much of which was used at the four ethanol plants in the state (Figure 11). These plants (plus their locations and yearly capacities) are Archer Daniels Midland (at Walhalla, 28 million gallons), Blue Flint Ethanol (Underwood, 50 million gallons), Red Trail Energy (Richardton, 50 million gallons), and Tharaldson Ethanol (Casselton, 120 million gallons). These four plants have a total annual production capacity of 248 million gallons of ethanol (147, 148). The recently completed Tharaldson Ethanol plant is the fifth largest in the nation, and uses wastewater from the Fargo, North Dakota treatment plant (148).


Figure 10. Biomass resources in North Dakota.


Cellulosic ethanol has also received attention in North Dakota due to the state’s high potential for biomass production (Figure 12) (149). The Alternative Fuels Data Center of the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 10 million dry tons of cellulosic and crop biomass can be produced in the state, which could produce 600 million gallons of ethanol by 2012 (186). Corn stover, wheat straw, switchgrass (150), mixes of native grasses and forbs (151), and cattails are all under consideration as feedstocks. Switchgrass and other perennial grass varieties are undergoing field trials at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center near Streeter and at other locations throughout the state (152). Cattails, which cover 600,000 acres of wetlands in North Dakota, have also been proven to be a good source for ethanol (74, 75).

The major source of biodiesel in the U.S. is soybean, and 105 million bushels of soybeans were produced in North Dakota in 2008 (153). Other biodiesel feedstocks grown in the state include sunflower, canola, crambe, and camelina. North Dakota leads the country in canola production (over 90 percent of the total), with 1.3 billion pounds produced in 2008 (154, 153). The Archer Daniel Midland biodiesel plant at Velva uses canola and has a production capacity of 85 million gallons a year (155).

Methane is also an energy source obtained from biomass. The Fargo landfill collects 1,200 cubic feet of gas per minute from 40 wells drilled into the buried waste. A generator powered by the gas provides electricity and heat for the facility. Excess electricity is sold to the local power cooperative (156).

Wind. Immigrants to North Dakota used wind power to grind grain as early as 1902. Windmills were also used to pump water and to generate electricity before the electrical lines were built in rural areas, as late as the 1950s (97). Today, turning wind into an economic resource is becoming a reality throughout the state. North Dakota has been cited as first in the nation for potential wind power, with 138,000 MW of potential capacity (157, 158). Currently, the state is ranked 13th in the U.S. with an existing capacity of 714 MW. As of March 2009, there were 471 turbines on 13 wind farms across the state (157). Five new wind farms have been proposed, which would result in a capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 MW more, a three- to four-fold increase (159, 160). One proposed project, the Hartland Wind Farm, in Burke, Ward, and Mountrail counties, may include from 330 to 1300 towers with a generating capacity of 1,000 to 2,000 MW, making it the largest in the U.S., if not the world (160).

Geothermal. Another quickly growing energy resource throughout North Dakota is the use of geothermal energy for direct heat or geothermal heat pumps. Falk Groundsource Technologies has been installing geothermal systems in the state since 1979 (161). As of 2008, there were over 500 installations in North Dakota, with two-thirds of these systems put in place in the last four years (115). Most of these systems are for homes, and the numbers are likely to increase due to tax credits available until 2016. The largest geothermal installation in the state is at the Microsoft campus in Fargo, with 704 wells used to heat and cool buildings with a combined area of 185,000 square feet (115).

Solar. North Dakota is not well situated for the use of concentrating solar collectors (see Figure 8), but the use of flat-plate collectors that utilize both direct and reflected sunlight is feasible (162, 163, 164). Solar panels are used in rural areas to power livestock fencing, pasture well systems (165), weather stations, and remote cameras.

Hydrogen. A wind-to-hydrogen project was initiated in 2007 at the North Central Research Experiment Center near Minot. This study will test the feasibility of using wind-generated electricity to run a hydrogen electroyzer and of storing and using hydrogen in trucks and tractors (166).


Research in the State

Research on energy is being conducted at locations throughout North Dakota, including the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks. This non-profit facility on the University of North Dakota campus specializes in the research, development, and promotion of new energy technologies in the marketplace (167). The North Dakota State University Bio Energy and Product Innovation Center in Fargo focuses on the production and processing of biomass for energy and other products, such as structural materials (168).

The Office of Renewable Energy was created by the North Dakota state legislature in 2005. This department has several functions: to promote the development of renewable resources and the transmission of renewable and conventional energy, to improve access to state and federal incentives, and to encourage the conservation of energy (169). For North Dakotan homeowners, a variety of state tax credits, tax exemptions, and loans are available for installing renewable energy systems and for improving energy efficiency (170, 171).

North Dakota’s economy benefits greatly from both fossil fuel and renewable energy production. The citizens of the state are progressive, and are striving to improve the use of both conventional and alternative energy sources.

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NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center