In a time when most utilities across the nation are struggling with stagnant or declining load growth, those in North Dakota have a different problem. Explosive growth in the state's Bakken shale region has brought on a 12% jump in the state's population in just the last five years.
Keeping the lights on is a challenge, but Basin Electric Power Cooperative is combining the latest natural gas peaker turbine technology, some of the best wind resources in the world, and persistent transmission expansion to do it.
“Our 2014 load forecast showed we need to add 1,883 MW by the year 2035 and of that the Bakken requirement is 1,616 MW,” Basin Electric’s Media Manager Curt Pearson told utility dive.
Basin Electric is one of the biggest U.S. generation and transmission (G&T) electric cooperatives and, driven by the Bakken boom, its $2 billion-plus 2013 revenues topped all U.S. electric cooperatives.
Basin is owned by 138 member cooperatives across 540,000 square miles in nine states from the Canadian to the Mexican borders. It serves 2.8 million electric customers and operates 4,913 MW of generation that includes coal, gas, oil, nuclear, and renewables. A total of 483 MW is renewable energy, with 438 MW of wind. Basin also owns 2,168 miles of high voltage transmission and maintains 2,253 miles of it.
The need for new G&T
Basin started seeing load growth in 2008 in the Bakken shale region around Williston, North Dakota.
“In 1997, there were 3 oil drilling rigs in North Dakota. In 2014, before the oil price collapse, there 187 rigs operating,” Pearson said. “But the load growth is not just from oil production. It is the workers coming in, the schools hiring new teachers, sheriff departments hiring new deputies, new apartments, new homes, new schools, hospitals expanding, new stores, gas stations doubling in size.”
The cooperative’s planners quickly realized the rural area would need a strengthened transmission system. They started with 2010’s Rhame-Belfield and 2011’s Williston-Tioga 230 kilovolt (kV) expansions, but Bakken demand only continued to rise.
Basin engineers realized they would need more.
“We build only to meet the needs of our member electric cooperatives and we do that based on their load forecasts," Pearson said. "But our members in the Bakken area kept coming back, year after year, with increased load forecasts.”
The engineers concluded they needed two things: A high capacity line to deliver the G&T’s existing power capacity to the region and new generation.
The answer to the generation need was a series of phased expansions of peaking natural gas capacity at its Pioneer and Lonesome Creek stations in the heart of the Bakken. Basin incorporated state-of-the-art natural gas turbine technologies.
The new peakers, which have been coming online over the last year, will work in coordination with Basin’s existing generation.
They will also work in conjunction with newly developed North Dakota winds, some of the most powerful winds in the world, with capacity factors of 45% to 50% or higher. With over 400 MW now in service, NextEra Energy and other developers are working to build more to meet Bakken oil patch needs.
“There is a very good school of thought that says if you have wind and you can back it up with natural gas peaking stations, you in fact have base-load power,” Pearson said.
The new line
Basin’s answer to the need for a new line is the 200-mile, $350 million, 345 kV Antelope Valley Station to Neset Transmission Project. Begun in September 2014 and scheduled for completion in 2017, its loop around Lake Sakakawea starts just north of Beulah in the center-west of North Dakota. It goes west to near Grassy Butte, then north to near Williston, then north beyond Williston to near Tioga.
They had to obtain approvals from the Western Area Power Administration, the Rural Utilities Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the North Dakota Public Service Commission, Pearson said. “It was a very complex project,” Pearson said.
Because Basin went through the Rural Utilities Service to obtain funding and because the line would interconnect with the Western Area Power Administration transmission system, a National Environmental Policy Act-based Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was required. It was published last May.
“We are only waiting for an approval from the Corps of Engineers for a river crossing south of Williston but it is in process now that we have agreed to special provisions for a floodplain with wildlife habitat,” Pearson said.
Compared to the permitting processes for other lines, Basin’s approval process of only three years was practically turbocharged. Pearson expressed amazement after reading in Utility Dive of the seven year struggle for permits by developers of the Transwest Express. He suggested Basin may have met fewer problems with federal agency staff. That may be because the Basin line covers a smaller and single state footprint.
The biggest challenge was obtaining rights-of-way from some 300 landowners. The response was good because the cooperative’s developers knew they were dealing with rancher-members and farmer-members of Basin-associated cooperatives.
“We truly wanted to work with them, to listen to their concerns, and to locate the line suitably,” Pearson said.
They also knew landowner talk. “We know that if we make an offer at 9:00 in the morning, the next neighbor down the line knows about it by 2:00 in the afternoon,” Pearson said. “If we make an offer for land but later settle with another member-landowner at a higher price, we will go back and make it right with the first landowner.”
Something Basin calls “landowner fatigue” or “pipeline fatigue” was the biggest challenge in obtaining rights-of-way.
“If a utility goes to a rancher and makes an offer for land to site a transmission line or a pipeline, that rancher probably says ‘OK, it serves the greater good, I can live with it,’” Pearson explained. But with developers frantically building infrastructure like pipelines, water systems, and telecommunications lines in the region, Basin was sometimes making the fourth or fifth request.
“That rancher may say ‘enough is enough,’” Pearson said. “It leads to much tougher negotiations, higher prices for access, and more effort.”
Basin now has its rights-of-way and permits and EIS and construction has begun. But the price of oil has collapsed and things are changing in the Bakken.
Kicker: The oil price collapse
“Our planning staff is studying the changes with a great degree of diligence,” Pearson said. “The crews are being sent home. But the drilling rigs are being parked, not shipped out of state. For anyone to assume the Bakken is done is simply wrong.”
“In the heart of the Bakken, they will retrench their efforts because the resource is phenomenal," Pearson said. “Drillers there have a 99.99% chance of hitting a productive well.”
There will be a year or two of redirected focus and consolidation, he believes. “People up there are using this slowdown to take a breather and get caught up,” he said.
During that pause, the Antelope Valley Station to Neset line will be nearly completed. Wind builders will expand the state’s installed capacity and spread it out geographically. In combination with the new transmission, the impact of wind’s variability will be diminished. That will make both Basin’s new gas peakers and its wind even more cost-effective.
By then, Pearson said, the drillers will be back.