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Great River Energy should think again about selling Coal Creek

The Coal Creek power plant sale will also include the high voltage transmission system (HVDC) that connects Coal Creek to Minnesota. Minnesota ratepayers paid upwards of $800 million to build the HVDC.

Coal Creek Station
Coal Creek Station
Great River Energy
It’s OK to be skeptical of change. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of running through the woods in northern Minnesota, in the same logging community where my grandpa grew up and where he still owns property. I learned how to troll for pike in a nearby lake, and watched my grandpa carefully maintain his 7 acres of forest with the same mix of vegetation that was there when he was a kid. He was certainly skeptical of change, at least for that forest, and I watered my fair share of 2-foot-tall white pine trees as part of his master plan to encourage native plants to thrive and ward off invasive species.

When it comes to Great River Energy (GRE), though, and how the utility provides electricity to about 1.7 million people across Minnesota, change is exactly what we need.

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GRE, a non-profit electric cooperative, is moving forward with plans to sell its Coal Creek power plant to a for-profit company, Rainbow Energy. Keeping the North Dakota coal plant open is a bad idea for many reasons, most notably that the cost of renewable energy keeps dropping, making it more and more difficult for coal to stay cost competitive. But the Coal Creek sale will also include the high voltage transmission system (HVDC) that connects Coal Creek to Minnesota. Minnesota ratepayers paid upwards of $800 million to build the HVDC; now Great River Energy is selling it off for the bargain-basement price of just $250 million.

Erik Hillesheim
Erik Hillesheim

That discrepancy — an $800 million asset being sold for just $250 million — reeks of the worst kind of corporate welfare. Coal Creek didn’t pay for the HVDC; ratepayers like my family and I (and the 1.7 million other Minnesotans who receive electricity from GRE) paid for the HVDC. The HVDC isn’t worth $550 million less today than when it was built. If anything, the growing renewable energy market in North Dakota means the line is more valuable now than it ever has been. But, if the sale goes through as planned, a private company, Rainbow Energy, will benefit from the relatively inexpensive purchase of the HVDC that my family helped pay for.

As a Dakota Electric member-owner who ultimately purchases power from Great River Energy, I want to save money, not give it away to private companies. We need to be investing in infrastructure that makes our whole energy system work better and more efficiently, not burning money on coal. This is the financially conservative approach, too: We will save money by being proactive about solving our energy issues versus putting on really expensive bandaids for decades to come.

I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life. I went to Minnesota public schools (shout out to the amazing teachers of ISD 196!), attended the University of Minnesota, and have loved Eagan for the beautiful parks and access to green spaces we all love. My grandparents were traditional Minnesotan conservationists, and raised me to understand the importance of caring for the world we live in. That’s not what GRE is doing with this sale of Coal Creek. There’s still time for GRE to change course, but will the utility listen?

Erik Hillesheim is a 25-year-old environmentalist, toothpaste salesman, and recent dog owner. Hillesheim grew up in Eagan, went to Eagan High School, and then the University of Minnesota, where he studied business and Spanish. 

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