All of the electricity from the 1100-megawatt Coal Creek Station near Underwood, North Dakota, is sold in Minnesota and all of the coal that is sold to the station comes from one coal mine – Falkirk, which is adjacent to the plant. The relationship between the mine and plant began in 1974 and continues today.
“The amount of electricity from Coal Creek Station that travels on the power lines to Minnesota depends a lot on the job we do at the mine,” says Jay Kost, president of the Falkirk Mining Company. “The energy market is competitive so we have to focus on the things we can control – safety, environmental stewardship and costs.”
The Falkirk Mine averages 7 to 8 million tons of coal sold to Great River Energy every year. The coal is used by the behemoth Coal Creek Station or is shipped by rail to the Spiritwood Station near Jamestown, North Dakota.
Coal deliveries to these plants are influenced by the quantity of electricity from wind turbines and the price of natural gas, so keeping fuel costs low is important to the Falkirk Mine.
The mine employs approximately 470 people. Kost said the number of the employees significantly increased about 10 years ago when strip ratio, or depth of overburden over the coal seam, increased. This meant the addition of more truck-shovel fleets to remove some of the cover before the massive draglines uncover the coal.
With the addition of new employees, training people to operate the big equipment safely took on new challenges. That job is everyone’s responsibility and is led by Dave Sailer, safety manager at the mine.
“Our employees are very fluid at the mine,” Sailer said. “They move from area to area and operate many different pieces of equipment. We have to make sure they are very comfortable in the jobs they are doing and that they feel comfortable when moving to other jobs when needed.”
Sailer said the safety culture at the mine begins at the top and needs to be a part of the job of every mine employee. He added that the Falkirk Mine wants to be not only injury free but also accident free.
Environmental stewardship is important not only to the miners but also to their customers.
“Great River Energy is considered one of the leaders in the utility world and we think of ourselves as also being progressive in how we care for the environment,” Kost said. “That includes protecting the air, land and water at the mine.”
While Jeremy Eckroth is a senior environmental specialist at the mine, he said it’s up to every employee to ensure that mining and reclamation activities occur in compliance with all state and federal regulations.
“Mining coal is a temporary disturbance of the landscape,” Eckroth noted, “but our legacy at the Falkirk Mine is going to be the quality of the reclamation to return the land to a condition as good or better than before mining.”
Kost said that being located next to the Coal Creek Station aids in communications between the mine and plant.
“We have three production meetings each week with representatives from Coal Creek Station attending most of the meetings,” he said. “The cost of electricity is dependent to a large extent on the price of the fuel, so we work very hard to keep our costs as low as possible so that the electricity sold is competitive with other power sources – including wind and natural gas-based generation.”
Kost continued saying there are things beyond the immediate control of the mine that affect the coal industry. Those include federal regulations, state mandates and tax incentives that help renewable and intermittent sources like wind turbines and solar panels.
“We know those are factors we can’t control so we focus on the things we can,” he said. “In the end, our mission is to be the best fuel supplier we can be to help our customer provide affordable, reliable power to the electric distribution cooperatives served by Great River Energy in Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin.”