Coal unit retirements mark ‘end of an era’ for Heskett station | mandan
Thursday at 9:41 p.m. marked “the end of an era” for the Heskett station, as the workers described it. It was the last time North Dakota’s oldest coal-fired power plant burned lignite.
Operations Supervisor Lonnie Moody anticipated a dark atmosphere inside the control room that evening. He started working at the plant 30 years ago unloading lignite coal that arrived by rail, and he planned to be there when it closed, he told the Tribune in an interview the day before.
“I want to see it explode,” he said.
The withdrawal of the two coal-fired units from Heskett did not happen suddenly. Montana-Dakota Utilities announced in 2019 that it planned to stop operating Units 1 and 2 north of Mandan, as well as another coal-fired power plant, Lewis & Clark Station near Sidney, Montana.
Moody knew Heskett’s coal units were aging — one is nearly 70 years old — and the economy no longer favored coal power at the site. Still, the factory was functioning well. He was on vacation the day the news broke that the units would be retiring in a few years.
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“My phone was exploding,” he said.
Joe Geiger also remembers that day. He also served as a supervisor at the plant and has since taken on a new role within MDU which includes implementing retirements.
“I think everyone understood the decision,” he said. “As an employee of the establishment, it was still a difficult message to receive.”
MDU had planned to stop operating the coal units by the end of March, but recent developments have accelerated the schedule by several weeks. A mechanical failure caused Unit 2 to go offline on January 30. That factored into the company’s decision to close Unit 1 on Thursday to comply with federal aviation regulations, spokesman Mark Hanson said.
Heskett’s Unit 1 first started up in 1954 with a capacity of 25 megawatts. It was the largest coal plant in the state at the time.
MDU ran a full-page ad in The Bismarck Tribune before the facility’s grand opening the following year, inviting the public to an open house for tours, donuts, and coffee. Entrants could enter a drawing that promised a “Hotpoint DeLuxe electric range” for a grand prize. MDU named the $6.5 million powerhouse for company founder RM Heskett.
The plant was meant to supplement electricity generated by hydroelectric dams up and down the Missouri River, the Tribune reported in stories about the plant’s construction in the 1950s. When water levels were low and production dams was missing, Heskett was supposed to fill the void.
The Bismarck-Mandan region was growing for a number of reasons, including the discovery of oil at Tioga in 1951. The oil boom brought a number of energy-related businesses to the state, many of which chose the capital and its neighbor for their headquarters.
“The expansion of agriculture, industry, utilities and small businesses of all kinds has led to a sharp acceleration in electricity demand in western North Dakota,” the Tribune reported. before Heskett’s dedication.
MDU installed a larger unit with a capacity of 75 megawatts at the site in 1963. Heskett was the oldest coal-fired power plant still in operation in North Dakota until this week. The Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Leland Olds station now has this distinction. It started operating in 1966.
Utilities built a number of larger coal-fired power plants in the decades after Heskett went online, mostly farther north along the mines that feed them. Lignite coal has a high moisture content, which makes it inefficient for transporting long distances by train.
The coal traveled only a short distance by rail to Heskett from the Beulah mine, operated by Westmoreland Beulah Mining. Coal production is halting at the mine as a multi-year recovery process begins, Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann said.
A Westmoreland Mining Holdings executive told the Tribune that “while coal mining may come to a halt, our large-scale operation to restore the land to pristine condition will increase dramatically.”
Chief operating officer Joe Micheletti added that the mine employs 26 people who in recent years have supplied Heskett with around 400,000 tonnes of coal a year.
About 50 people worked at Heskett before it announced its withdrawal from coal.
“You spend so much time in there,” Moody said. “It’s becoming like a family.”
The Heskett station will no longer burn coal, but will continue to send electricity into the grid via an existing gas-fired unit and another planned on site. Both are peak units. They will remain ready most of the time, waiting for a peak in electricity demand before starting.
Already, construction workers have started moving earth for the new unit west of the coal facilities, Hanson said. The unit is expected to be commissioned by the end of the first quarter of 2023, doubling the gas plant’s 88 megawatt capacity.
MDU installed the first gas unit in 2014, with fuel transported by a pipeline that taps into a wider line at St. Anthony in southern Morton County. The gas comes from the Northern Border pipeline, which begins in Canada and recovers a significant amount of gas produced in the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota.
MDU cited low-cost natural gas, low market electricity prices and rising coal costs as factors pulling Heskett’s coal-fired units.
“The decision to retire these units was made in the best interests of customers,” said Geiger, who now works as MDU’s production manager.
MDU recently entered into an agreement with Minnkota Power Cooperative to purchase power from the Milton R. Young coal plant to help bridge the gap between coal withdrawals from Heskett and its new gas unit.
Heskett’s retirements come as the coal industry has struggled amid an influx of natural gas and renewables across the United States. Heskett marks the second coal plant to close in recent memory in North Dakota. Great River Energy’s Stanton station ceased operation in 2017.
Seven workers will remain at Heskett to support its gas units. Five employees have accepted other positions within MDU, and seven have short-term assignments, Hanson said. Nearly 30 others will continue to work over the next few months to prepare the site for dismantling.
Moody’s said a number of Heskett employees have left since MDU announced the plant’s closure. He and Geiger said the company has worked to help employees find other jobs.
“Ultimately, finding gainful employment was one of my top priorities. Staying with MDU was also a very high priority,” Geiger said. “The fact that I was able to achieve both of these goals by taking on this position has been extremely beneficial to my family.”
He said workers in the coming months will remove hazardous materials and all environmental contaminants, then dismantle just about everything on the site, including the two large chimneys. The process is known as downgrading.
“All structures will fall with the end result being a newly listed site,” Geiger said.
Moody expects him to retire when the dismantling begins. He said shutting down coal-fired power stations “would change a lot of people’s lives”.
“It’s going to be weird to spend 30 years of your life in a place that’s going to disappear,” he said.
Contact Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or [email protected]