Beulah, ND: Dakota Gasification Company - Great Plains Synfuels Plant

Going through the guidebooks on North Dakota before we left led me to one of our most unusual stops - a tour of a gas company's plant. About an hour and fifteen minutes northwest from Bismarck, you can take a tour of the only coal-to-natural-gas plant in North America; in fact, it is only one of two of these kinds of plants in the whole world (the other is in South Africa).

We made an appointment for our free tour of the Dakota Gasification Company's Great Plains Synfuel Plant. A considerable amount of Eric's research involves energy, and we thought it'd be cool to check this out. (Thanks to Eric for his help with this article.) When we arrived, we actually had to wait a little bit - our guide had a very large group of people who had just finished their tour and were asking questions and poking around the gift shop. We found out later that lots of groups, especially HOAs, bus in for tours to learn about options for energy in their neighborhoods.

We mostly couldn't take any photos inside the building while on the tour, but it was really interesting. We started off with a short video presentation that gave us a lot of overview about the plant and what it does. This area of North Dakota is full of lignite coal that isn't really good for anything else and just so happens to be fairly straightforward to turn into natural gas. In the energy crisis in the 1970s, this factory went up and has been running ever since. 

Natural gas was expected to be expensive and in short supply (based on low US production and OPEC embargoes), but it has turned out to be readily available and relatively cheap over time (especially with the shale boom in the last decade).  So how has the Synfuels Plant kept going all this time? They figured out how to diversify their process in order to capture almost all of the byproducts that are valuable. It was a great idea and those byproducts now (or at least in July 2015, when we visited) were more than half the profits of the plant. For instance, they have an entire pipeline that just ships carbon dioxide (a byproduct) to rejuvenate older oil fields in Canada.

Our tour guide had been involved here for many years and her husband works in the field, so she was incredibly knowledgeable and could answer almost all of our (sometimes pretty detailed) questions. We also watched mini videos at various stations situated around the main attraction - a $10 million exact scale model of the plant itself.

(Sorry for the picture quality - since we weren't able to bring cameras, these are from my phone.) These are the only photos from inside the tour, and they were taken far enough away from the model that we were allowed to take them (no close ups). The model itself was insane. What you are seeing in the photo is not nearly all of it. Most of our time on the tour was spent walking around this model, watching the very short video that accompanied that section of the plant, and bombarding our tour guide with more questions.

We learned a lot about coal and natural gas and the byproducts of turning the first into the latter. We also learned a lot about the town of Beulah. It's pretty tiny - the only place we could really find for lunch on our way to the plant was a Subway - but in July, their housing rental market was off the charts. There were so many people coming in to work in the general area (there are lots of energy-based companies here) that one-bedroom apartments were renting for more than $1200/month ... in a tiny town in North Dakota!

This was a great, interesting stop on our trip. When we finished our tour guide sent us along with goodies (umbrellas, water bottles, even extra boxed lunches from the previous group) so even if we didn't already like her, we definitely would have at this point. She even offered to answer questions later via email or phone if we had more, since Eric had talked about his interests in energy. If you happen to be in the middle of ND and want to learn about something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country, you should definitely set up a tour and check it out!
Beulah, ND: Dakota Gasification Company - Great Plains Synfuels Plant Beulah, ND: Dakota Gasification Company - Great Plains Synfuels Plant Reviewed by Maria on 10:00:00 AM Rating: 5

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