What happens if PacifiCorp shuts down coal-fired units early?

COURTESY PHOTO

Neighboring states offer hints

Plant manager Kyle Davis descends stairs at the Carbon power plant in Helper, Utah, on March 24 2015. Early retirements of coal-fired units in Utah and Colorado may offer hints as to what could be in store for Lincoln County if PacifiCorp retires Naughton units 1 and 2 by the end of 2022.

Last week Rocky Mountain Power / PacifiCorp presented an updated coal study that estimates the early retirement of Naughton units 1 and 2 and Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 could save Rocky Mountain Power customers millions of dollars. Executives said the coal study will inform the utility’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan. The utility has a deadline of August 1 to present the plan to the Public Service Commissions of the six states it serves. 

At an April 23 meeting in Kemmerer with local leaders, the utility said that it must provide power to customers at the lowest possible cost. But PacifiCorp estimates the current end-of-life for the Naughton units to be 2029, so the possibility of retiring the coal-fired units in just a few years comes as a shock to plant workers and the community.

“We know that those seven years mean a lot to families here,” CEO Gary Hoogeveen said. “We have to do (retirement) correctly. But we have to do it.” 

Hoogeveen said that PacifiCorp would use the IRP to explore how to stagger the shutdowns of local coal-fired units past the 2022 date suggested by the coal study.

The City of Kemmerer is encouraging residents to comment on the Integrated Resource Plan online at http://www.pacificorp.com/es/irp/irpcomments.html.

The threat of early retirement of coal-fired units at Naughton echoes prior decisions by PacifiCorp and other utilities in neighboring states.

RMP retired the coal-fired Carbon Power Plant near Helper in Carbon County, Utah, in April 2015 because of the high cost of complying with new mercury emission rules.

Carbon was Utah’s oldest coal-fired power plant — it operated for more than six decades. Carbon County leaders are currently at a conference in Denver with Lincoln County and other coal-reliant counties in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico to explore options for economic diversification.

According to a 2016 article  about the Carbon power plant in the Salt Lake Tribune, “most of the plant’s 120 employees were offered jobs at PacifiCorp’s other plants in nearby Emery County, while many others remained at Carbon to work on the decommissioning.”

The power plant was then dismantled and reclaimed. PacifiCorp said it recycled the materials.

“There are a lot of us who have invested a lot of our life here,” Carbon plant manager Kyle Davis told the Deseret News in 2015. “It’s like losing a friend, or a death in the family. You mourn for it.”

Costly environmental compliance upgrades were also the reason RMP gave for shutting down Unit 3 at the Naughton power plant in January.

Executives said it’s still a possibility to convert the unit to natural gas, but the result would be a “drastically different operation.”

With the remaining Naughton units, the promise of cheaper costs of other energy sources is the reason for a potential early closure.

Carbon County’s economic development strategic plan published in February 2018 cites the county’s declining coal market as the reason for a decline in per capita taxable sales, which dropped from $21,781 in 2011 to $17,667 in 2016. 

The county’s current strategic plan suggests seeking out mid-box stores and working with Utah State University Eastern in Price to bring young people back into the county.

In 2018, the Carbon County Commissioners restructured their Economic Development and Tourism departments and hired specialists to implement their strategic plan.

Carbon County is also working with the state of Utah to secure economic stability and prepare for the future.

Lincoln County has made similar moves, working with the governor’s office and local governments and economic development agencies to advocate for legislation and programs that would support the community in the event of an early shutdown.

Retiring the coal-fired plants early could devastate the economies of local communities. Despite this, environmental lobbying groups have praised Rocky Mountain Power’s coal study.

“Rocky Mountain Power finally seems to be coming to grips with the fact that coal just doesn’t make economic sense anymore,” Sierra Club campaign representative Christopher Thomas told the Gazette in an email. “Now is the time for Rocky Mountain Power to seriously look at helping coal communities prepare for a coal-free future, and to take advantage of low cost renewable energy and battery storage.”

Rocky Mountain Power executives faced criticism last week in Kemmerer for suggesting that they did not yet know if the utility’s alternative energy sources could fulfill the power quota that an early Naughton shutdown would bring.

Rocky Mountain Power will study the impact of different coal-fired power plant shutdown scenarios before publishing a final decision in its 2019 IRP in August.