A 44-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Sidney is slated to close at the end of the month as part of Montana-Dakota Utilities’ pivot away from coal.

In addition to closing the Lewis & Clark Station in Sidney this week, the company is planning to retire two coal plants in Mandan, North Dakota, next March.

“Low-cost power available on the market, due to low-cost natural gas and increasing resources, as well as rising costs to operate these facilities, led to the decision to retire the coal plants,” according to MDU’s website.

MDU spokesman Mark Hanson told Montana Free Press the Lewis & Clark plant has been in operation for more than 60 years, “twice as long as was initially expected.” He added that “it’s been a very good plant,” but said its age and size make it uncompetitive.

MDU currently acquires about 51% of the energy in its portfolio from coal. Wind turbines account for 21%, and market purchases 28%. By 2023, once the planned closures have been effected, coal is expected to account 34% of the portfolio and market purchases will account for 44%. The company anticipates renewable energy will hold steady at 21%. 

The Montana-Dakota Utilities Lewis & Clark power station on the Yellowstone River near Sidney. Credit: Tim Evanson via Flickr

In the past decade, MDU has added more than 200 megawatts of wind power to its portfolio, including 48 megawatts that came online in 2018 as part of the expansion of the Thunder Spirit Wind plant in Hettinger, North Dakota.

The Lewis & Clark Station employs 27 people, three of whom were hired on as temporary help after this month’s closure was first announced in February 2019. Hanson said the plant’s regular full-time employees were offered retraining for other positions in the company. Some will stay with MDU, some will retire, and some will stay on to assist with the initial decommissioning process, he said. Decommissioning is expected to take three to six months.

Mining, including fossil fuels, is one of the top three industries in Richland County, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data compiled by Headwaters Economics. Mining accounted for 11% of the county’s jobs in 2019.

The coal fueling the Lewis & Clark station was mined about 20 miles south of Sidney at the Savage Mine, which is owned and operated by Westmoreland Mining, LLC. The Savage Mine also supplies coal to Sidney Sugars, which operates a sugar beet factory that first opened nearly a century ago. 

Richland County residents are concerned about the mine’s future — and the area’s economic prospects more generally — once the coal power plant closes.

“It will have a trickle-down effect when the Lewis & Clark Station closes down,” Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Sidney, told the Sidney Herald. “The coal mine in Savage might have to close down, which will affect the Savage school and our sugar beet factory.” 

A call to Westmore Mining seeking information about the company’s plans for the Savage Mine was unreturned by press time. 

Westmoreland Mining is a Colorado-based group of creditors that took over Westmoreland Coal in 2019 following its $1.4 billion bankruptcy. Prior to the bankruptcy, it was known as the nation’s largest independent coal producer.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...