This history of Milton R. Young Station is closely tied to one of the founders of Minnkota Power Cooperative – Andy Freeman – an electrical engineer originally from the small town of Upham, North Dakota. Freeman helped to found MPC in 1940 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
A dreamer and inventor, Freeman would later develop the headbolt heater in the late 1940s, but another dream of his was to build a power plant that would be fueled with lignite coal in western North Dakota and tie that plant to customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota through a high voltage transmission line.
The dream came to fruition on November 20, 1970, when the first unit of the Milton R. Young Station near Center, North Dakota, began operation. The 250-megawatt power plant was fueled with lignite from the adjoining Center Mine, owned and operated by BNI Coal, just as it is today.
A few years later, a larger second unit was added to the Young Station. The 455-megwatt Unit 2 began operation on May 11, 1977. Today, both units are overseen by another engineer from Upham – Gerry Pfau. His degree is in mechanical engineering and he became the plant manager at the Young Station in October 2009. Pfau is currently senior manager of power production for Minnkota, a cooperative serving 11 member rural electric distribution co-ops with about 132,000 customers.
Significant improvements have been made at the Young Station since 2007, including the investment of more than $425 million for major environmental upgrades. Today, the plant achieves a 95 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and a 55 to 60 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides. The sulfur dioxide is removed by scrubbers while the nitrogen oxides are reduced by a combination of overfire air technology coupled with a selected non-catalytic reduction system.
Within the last three years, a reduction system was added to also reduce mercury emissions from both units. Besides the environmental improvements, Minnkota has also upgraded the turbines on both units to improve plant efficiency.
“As a regional generation and transmission cooperative, Minnkota takes its responsibility to our customer/owners to heart,” Pfau said. “We not only work to provide electricity to members as reliably and affordably as we can, but we also work to ensure we are investing in ways to improve the environment, our communities and the people who work for us and those we serve with electricity.”
The Young Station employs about 180 people and the adjacent mine employs about the same number. The influence of the mine and plant has been felt by the neighboring town of Center and Oliver County. According to Job Service North Dakota, the average wage in Oliver County in 2015 was $76,712 – making it the second-highest county for average wages in the state. Only Williams County was higher with average wages of $77,653.
“Our workforce has changed quite a bit over the last few years,” Pfau said. “The average age of our employees is now about 40 and yet we still have about 25 percent of the workforce that is over the age of 55.”
Like other power plants in North Dakota, the Young Station is seeing several employees retire every year and new employees coming to work to replace them.
Pfau said that the older employees built up a lot of “institutional knowledge” about the plant from trial and error. Now as younger employees join the workforce, Minnkota has been trying to capture that knowledge by writing procedures and other guidelines to ensure that invaluable information is retained.
“We have a knowledge and history about this plant that is literally priceless,” Pfau said. “It’s not an easy to task to ensure that it is passed from veterans to new employees, but we work hard to make sure that transitions occur seamlessly and that our newer employees have the ability to perform their jobs well.”
The legacy of the Young Station from its very beginning has been its ability to generate electricity reliably and affordably. With the recent improvements in technology along with the ongoing changes in work force, the Young Station will continue to fulfill its mission for the foreseeable future to the benefit of rural electric cooperatives and their members.