Business North poses tough questions on Range ‘clean coal’ project

Business North revisits the ongoing saga of the Mesaba Energy Project in this month’s edition. This is the “clean coal” power plant proposed on the Iron Range by the start-up company Excelsior Energy. Reporter Beth Bily boils criticism of the project down to three major questions. And yes, I’m quoted in the story as a frequent critic of the project, but that’s not why I’m sending you there. The three questions?

  1. Who’s going to buy the power?
  2. How are you going to capture the carbon in an economically viable way?
  3. Is the immense public cost and risk worth the slim chance of a viable project when all is said and done?

On #1, maybe public utilities if they don’t realize how expensive the electricity will be. If they do, then no one knows. On #2, the carbon cannot be stored on the Iron Range using any current technology, necessitating an expensive pipeline that isn’t in present cost estimates. On #3, even if the project goes (a monumental “if”) we are gradually reaching the point where the per-job cash investment of the taxpayers is going to be well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the project does not go, the likeliest scenario, we’d have been better off giving the money away to people who would buy trucks and snowmobiles.

Wayne Nelson, editor of Business North and hardly an environmental radical, writes an editorial about Excelsior that also focuses on these three questions. He is skeptical:

So far, public financing support for this project has increased in direct proportion to the questions about its viability.

According to speculative stories, it wouldn’t be the only one in pursuit of the federal stimulus money. Both the Washington Post and New York Times have reported that FutureGen, a clean coal project in southern Illinois — the president’s home state — is the inside favorite for the $1 billion allocation in the stimulus law for fossil energy and research development.

Put simply, Mesaba Energy and FutureGen are politically-driven projects.

Anyone want to bet on the outcome if these clean coal projects go head to head for that money? How ironic.

It’s all about the politics. And frankly there are more votes to get in Illinois and western Indiana than there are here. The only reason the Iron Range is a part of this conversation is that our leaders were willing to gamble a vast amount of money on a promise and the media agreed to ignore these three questions. Let’s learn from that.

Check out the story and full editorial.


  1. These questions are well worth asking. I read some news about ethanol plants sitting empty and unused. That’s too much investment to waste.

  2. Anonymous says:

    On question #2: NOBODY can store carbon in an economical way. It makes for a fine straw man question if you are firmly opposed to the plant, but you could also ask “How will this power plant settle the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Oh it won’t? Well then we shouldn’t build it!”

    Some very important questions are missing:

    1) What will the power cost?

    2) How will the presence or absence of the project impact the power grid (both today, and in the future, say when Essar steel is fully up and running on the west end of the Range and Mesabi Nugget is running in the east)?

    Even if the per kilowatt-hr cost was rather high, having another large plant in the area may be very economical as power needs grow. Having a plant close by would reduce the need for additional power lines from other areas.

    Let’s also remember, even if this isn’t perfect, it’s “cleaner coal” than conventional plants.

  3. I think “Israel-Palestine” is a bit of a leap. It’s reasonable to suggest that piping a waste product to North Dakota on top of an already expensive technology (that uses coal from North Dakota, too) is a major barrier here.

    You might be right that we’ll have some needs in the grid with a fully functional Essar and Mesabi Nugget …. But it isn’t assured and that doesn’t make this project the wisest way to fix the problem, nor do I think a 50-year commitment to coal is wise either.

    Cleaner? Maybe … under optimal conditions. Without sequestration it’s just a different kind of dirty.

    This thing can only be built if the public sector takes an ENORMOUS risk on an unproven company and technology. That’s just not fair. Or smart. It’s unsustainable energy and economic policy.

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