Lincoln County Commission talks energy challenges

At their meeting in Kemmerer on Tuesday, Feb. 5, the Lincoln County Commissioners discussed the potential effects of Rocky Mountain Power / PacifiCorp’s latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). At this point, the plan proposes a shutdown of the coal-fired Naughton power plant by 2022, based on a study that says it would be cheaper for the company to shut it down rather than converting or continuing to operate.

Chairman Kent Connelly was very vocal about Rocky Mountain Power’s lack of communication about the IRP to the state of Wyoming and the cities and counties the utility serves, a sentiment that has been echoed by other local leaders and energy consumers.

Lincoln County Conservation District board members Eric Esterholdt and Bob Peternal and LCD natural resource specialist DeMont Grandy were also present at the meeting. They informed the commissioners of their concerns about what PacifiCorp’s IRP (and potential rising energy costs) could mean for community members who make their living in agriculture.

“We want to keep agriculture viable in the county,” Grandy said. “We’re also interested in this issue as community members.”

The group said power costs  were becoming more expensive in Cokeville than Star Valley, perhaps because Rocky Mountain Power was trying to complete Gateway West, a proposed 1,000-mile stretch of new power lines in Wyoming and Idaho.

Grandy said Conservation District board members would be interested in attending the next public comment meeting for Rocky Mountain Power’s IRP, to be held on Feb. 21 in Salt Lake City.

Connelly said Rocky Mountain Power had been instituting rate hikes in the name of updating infrastructure, and some of that money was supposed to go toward updating Unit 3 at Naughton. But PacifiCorp decided to shut down the unit instead, although the EPA regulations instituted under the Obama administration that would have made it necessary to shut down were no longer in effect.

“What happened to that money?” Connelly asked. “I think it was a play by Rocky Mountain Power so they could export that power to California, where they can get a higher price."

The commission reminded the audience that a potential loss (or severe decrease) of taxes paid by companies like Rocky Mountain Power or Westmoreland would greatly affect the county and its school districts. Commissioner Robert King said they had recently spoken to Wyoming’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow about the issue, and she expressed the same frustration at not having been “in the loop” with Rocky Mountain Power.

The Lincoln County commissioners aren’t the only government representatives determined to take action to save the state’s energy industry and jobs. The commission referenced bills in the Wyoming State Legislature that offer alternative solutions to the decisions proposed in Rocky Mountain Power’s latest Integrated Resource Plan.

One of those bills is Senate File 159, titled “New opportunities for Wyoming coal-fired generation.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan Dockstader (Senate District 16-Lincoln, Sublette, Teton), passed the Senate on third reading on Feb. 6.

"This bill provides an opportunity for another company to own and operate the facility, rather than shut it down, causing people to lose their employment," Dockstader told the Gazette last week.

Dockstader spoke of his motivation for sponsoring the bill.

"I don’t think Wyoming is ready to step away from an industry that drives the economy of several communities in the state," Dockstader continued. "I’m not giving up. I’ll keep this fight going, from attempting to move roads allowing access to viable coal operations to keeping plants open and running under new ownership. We have to keep moving forward with clean coal technology, but I’m not stepping down. I want to keep my Lincoln County and Wyoming neighbors employed."

Other bills addressing the issue did not advance in the legislature, but on Tuesday the commission agreed that they introduced important points, and were a sign that Wyoming would do something about this issue.

“One of our major battles has been to educate people and encourage them to get involved and speak up on this issue,” Connelly said.