By Jessica Holdman
October 5, 2018 - With one of the Falkirk Mine draglines looming tall in the background, North American Coal Engineering Manager Steve Burke pulls onto the minesite dirt in his battery-powered Chevrolet Volt.
“Every day I charge up my electric vehicle powered by North Dakota’s homegrown energy source, lignite coal,” he says in the video ad played before the crowd at the Lignite Energy Council Fall Conference in Bismarck this week.
Through ad campaigns such as this, the North Dakota coal industry aims to change the local perception of electric vehicles to increase demand for the coal-fired energy it produces.
In January, Bohrer said a number of his Twitter followers indicated they would never consider buying an electric vehicle. And Bohrer said often, when he sees an electric vehicle on the road, his first thought is “that dang hippie.”
But of Burke he says: “I would let him merge in front of me on the interstate because he’s powering his vehicle with homegrown North Dakota lignite. That’s the message we need to do more of.”
There were 1.1 million electric vehicles sold worldwide last year, according to Bohrer, adding that number is expected to increase to 11 million by 2025. In the United States, last year’s sales were up nearly 30 percent, to about 200,000.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a self-described group of scientists, engineers, economists and policy experts committed to using science to improve environmental health, made the argument in March that, to date, nationwide electric cars produce the same emissions as a car getting 80 miles per gallon. Numbers varied by region, with California electric vehicles, charged largely by renewables, getting 109 miles per gallon, those in Illinois and Missouri getting 39 mpg, and those in the Dakotas getting 51 mpg.
The group argues this trend will continue because more natural gas and renewables are being added to the grid.
But as the market for electric vehicles grows, the coal industry in North Dakota aims to hold on to its share. In the state, coal largely competes with wind, often owned by those same coal-fired utility companies.
The Lignite Energy Council argues that wind is unfairly subsidized by production tax credits. The industry sees electric vehicles as just one of a number of extra streams of revenue it could use to compete against the renewable energy market.
Bohrer said the possibility of electric vehicles serves other benefits to coal, too. Electric vehicles are most often charged at night, a time when energy is in peak demand and a time when wind power production also tends to be highest. Bohrer said, if the increased energy need of electric vehicles can eat up the wind energy produced, coal plants could step up to cover the difference. This would require less cycling down of the plants, which are designed to best run at full capacity.
Jonathan Fortner, director of government relations for the Lignite Energy Council, has also previously predicted a future for coal in powering autonomous vehicles.
“If and when this technology reaches a critical mass, autonomous vehicles will be a big opportunity for the lignite industry,” he said at the LEC Annual Meeting earlier this year.
Because electric and autonomous are being predicted to rise in the market at the same time, most of those autonomous vehicles will likely be electric, according to Fortner.
“General Motors has announced they are working toward an all-electric future with 18 EV models by 2023,” he said.
To prepare, the LEC Government Affairs Committee is identifying initiatives, such as filling infrastructure needs. Bohrer said plans are to pursue a portion of an $8 million settlement paid to the state by Volkswagen for its diesel vehicle emissions violations, monies which are to be distributed by the new state Department of Environmental Quality for projects aimed at improving air quality. Those funds would be used to construct charging stations.