WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota could play a larger role in generating wind energy to send its neighbors under new federal rules intended to curb carbon emissions, though the state is likely to keep relying almost entirely on coal to keep its own lights on.
The state has enormous wind potential. But with a population estimated to be less than 750,000, it remains a fairly small market for energy despite a spike in demand from its economic boom. That means additional wind output may likely be destined for other states.
The new Environmental Protection Agency rules, under which North Dakota needs to cut emissions by only around 11 percent, should lead to increased demand for coal alternatives in nearby states, said Tom Vinson, senior director of federal regulatory affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade association.
"Assuming that the transmission is sufficient, then North Dakota has potentially a major opportunity for exporting wind to help other states meet their compliance obligations — as well as using wind to meet your own obligation under the EPA rule," he said.
In 2013, 79 percent of North Dakota's electricity generation came from coal, 16 percent came from wind and 5 percent came from hydroelectric sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The American Wind Energy Association said North Dakota has a capacity of 1,681 megawatts of wind energy installed, and 633 megawatts under construction will expand its capacity significantly. The group says North Dakota already ranks sixth in the nation in terms of the percentage of electricity generated by wind.
The EPA rules aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent nationwide by 2030 could increase reliance on some of the state's other power sources. But since North Dakota's cut is comparatively small and barriers remain on energy sources like natural gas, coal will likely remain the dominant source.
When the new regulations were announced, North Dakota's U.S. senators stood by coal. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said the country needs policies that support coal, and Sen. John Hoven said the new rules would hurt the economy and North Dakota because of coal's dominance.
Lignite, the type of coal mined in North Dakota, is considered a low-grade coal and criticized by opponents as the dirtiest burning coal. But it's not subject to the price swings that oil and natural gas are, making it a much more reliable energy source, said Steve Van Dyke, a spokesman for the Lignite Energy Council.
North Dakota has the second-largest lignite reserves in the world after Australia — enough economically recoverable to last 800 years at current usage, he said.
"Coal has really been the old faithful of North Dakota's economy, and that's for the last 40 to 50 years," Van Dyke said.
Here's a look at the likely future of other sources:
—Natural Gas: Basin Electric Power Cooperative based in Bismarck has one fully operational natural gas peaking station and one that is partially functional in North Dakota. But peaking stations run only at times of high demand, meaning they have a very limited impact on the state's power portfolio. The state currently burns off, or flares, more than 300 million cubic feet of natural gas every day, or 30 percent of what is produced in the state. To utilize that gas being wasted, pipelines need to reach remote areas of oil production to the plants where gas can be processed. And of the 70 percent or so of gas that is captured, much of it and the products pulled from it are shipped out of state.
—Water: Hydroelectricity will likely not play a major role in further reducing the state's emissions because it currently uses more of the power than its Garrison Dam produces, said Randy Wilkerson, spokesman for the Western Area Power Administration, a marketing agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.