WASHBURN, N.D. — McLean County is, in the words of its state's attorney and policy influencer, "betting on Einstein" for its future.
That's why the central North Dakota county in the heart of lignite coal country recently imposed a two-year moratorium on solar power, a couple of months after it told Great River Energy to take a hike when the Minnesota power cooperative wanted to build more power lines to transmit wind energy from neighboring counties.
Great River Energy is the company that announced earlier this year it was shuttering the massive Coal Creek Station coal-fired power plant in McLean County in 2022, a devastating economic blow in an area low on high-paying jobs with good benefits.
There is an aversion to wind power in this area of North Dakota, both because locals see it as a threat to coal and because many view large wind farms as a blight on the wondrous landscape. The Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon are outdoors meccas for fishing, hunting and recreating. Huge swaths of wind towers and power lines blunt the beauty. Recreation dollars are a major source of income for many in this area.
Ladd Erickson is the state's attorney in question. When a local newspaper ran a story last week that McLean County put a two-year ban on solar farms, and Erickson was quoted as saying the contracts being offered to landowners were close to an "outright scam," I couldn't resist talking with him for further comment.
Erickson and I have a brief history. I wrote a column in early June after Erickson and his county commission stiff-armed Great River Energy's attempt at building more power lines for wind energy, saying McLean County "cut off its nose to spite its face" because of potential jobs the decision killed. Erickson responded with a commentary titled "Blowhard: The Mike McFeely Story."
The belief here is that McLean County and the other lignite counties continue to deny the reality that coal is on its way out because of dropping profitability and social pressure based on climate change. I wondered, frankly, if the Erickson-led push to ban solar power was another futile swipe at renewables.
Erickson said it's much more complicated than that. He believes the solar companies approaching landowners with leases are speculators who want to tie up land around Coal Creek Station with the hope of selling the leases to a third party if access is granted to the massive high voltage power line that carries electricity from North Dakota to Minnesota.
Erickson considers the moratorium "landowner protection" because, he said, the solar company leases have the potential to tie up property for decades. Property, Erickson says, that can be used in a coal operation.
"You get them thinking there is going to be a project in the short term when there is no chance of that happening," Erickson said. "But there are mechanisms to hold the leases for a long time even if there is no project. Then the land is stuck in perpetual limbo."
OK, but if Coal Creek Station is closing in a couple of years what difference does it make if coal land is leased to solar (or wind) companies?
This is where Erickson says McLean County is making a gamble.
"We're betting on Einstein," he says. "We're betting on the physics of the power grid."
He means that the county believes there will not be enough baseload power for the grid without Coal Creek. And that means, somehow, somebody will have to figure out a way for the power plant to profitably burn coal to provide energy. That's where Erickson and McLean County are placing their chips.
It flies in the face of industry trends around the United States, where the coal industry continues to shrink despite President Donald Trump's promises to save it. It flies in the face of what Great River Energy said — that it was losing about $70 million a year operating Coal Creek Station. There's a sense still that the residents of McLean County believe Great River Energy was lying to them.
That's the bet.
Erickson, as he did in the commentary slashing me, also raised the idea of so-called carbon capture saving the power plant. But there's no indication that the technology, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions by the process of sequestering at their emission source before it’s released into the atmosphere, is anywhere near ready on a large scale.
He also touted the University of North Dakota's research that unlocked how to extract rare earth metals from lignite coal. Rare earth metals are used in everyday items like cellphones and currently come mainly from China.
It's all about keeping access to lignite reserves, just in case. Erickson and McLean County are taking the long view.
"It's complicated," Erickson says. "It's not as simple as some are making it out to be."
If your strategy is betting on physics, that much is clear.