Despite the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback and declaration that the “war on coal” is over, utilities are still moving away from coal-fired power and toward renewables, such as wind and solar.
Wyoming, with an abundant stock of both relatively cheap coal and strong, steady wind, stands to both benefit and suffer from the market and regulatory driven shift — a process that may shift some electric utility and mining jobs away from historically coal-dependent communities and over to the state’s highly-prized wind corridors.
The trend is reflected in the workings of one utility, Berkshire Hathaway’s multi-billion-dollar PacifiCorp, which plays an outsized role in how the transition might affect Wyoming.
PacifiCorp generates 10,894 megawatts of electricity and serves 1.8 million customers across six western states, including Wyoming. Coal-fired and wind generation facilities in Wyoming account for 33 percent of the utility’s total generation capacity. The industry giant operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.
The utility is currently analyzing whether to shutter one of three coal units at the Naughton power plant in Kemmerer, or convert it to natural gas. The unit is more than 40 years old. Even converting the unit to natural gas would result in fewer jobs at the plant, and likely fewer jobs at the Kemmerer Mine that provides part of the plant’s coal feedstock.
Meanwhile, 250 miles to the east near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, population 270, PacifiCorp plans to invest $2.2 billion in new wind generation and transmission and another $700 million to upgrade its existing wind generation there.
Across its six-state operating region, PacifiCorp expects to retire 749 megawatts of coal-fired power units by 2025, and 3,649 megawatts by the end of 2036. Naughton, the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs, Dave Johnston in Glenrock and the Wyodak complex east of Gillette could all be affected by those retirements.
The transition from old coal generation to renewable energy is part of PacifiCorp’s “cost-conscious transition,” and it’s likely to shift the utility giant’s economic influence geographically.
“It’s driven by a couple of things; transmission and a federal production tax credit [for wind generation] that’s set to expire,” said Chad Teply, Rocky Mountain Power’s Vice President of Resource Development and Environmental Services.
Teply testified last week before the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee. The committee keeps close tabs on the “federal nexus” — the intersection of the state’s fossil fuel-dependent economy and federal policy, particularly that of the U.S. Department of Interior.
Teply told the committee that the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations related to coal hasn’t changed the utility’s planning for how it shifts its portfolio of renewables, hydro and fossil fuels. However, Teply said he does expect the administration’s actions might give the utility more favorable footing in litigating rules that guide how it meets emission standards.
“I think it’s important to point out the rules have not gone away,” Teply said.
Meeting federal haze standards for the region remains a significant factor in whether to invest in emission upgrades or to set an expiration date for a coal unit.
From 2005 to 2016, PacifiCorp spent more than $1.1 billion to upgrade controls of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen emissions at its Wyoming fleet to help meet regional haze standards. But today that type of investment has a diminishing rate of return, particularly for the oldest units among the coal fleet, Teply said.
Even a coal-to-natural-gas conversion for one of three units at the Naughton plant appears unlikely. “What we’re seeing in the current marketplace today, the economics would not support that gas conversion.”
PacifiCorp isn’t the only utility betting big on Wyoming wind. Power Company of Wyoming, backed by billionaire Philip Anschutz, plans to invest $5 billion in the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, also in south-central Wyoming.
Market forces, despite the Trump administration’s pro-coal policies, still appear to favor investments in Wyoming wind. Proposed wind energy deployment, if approved, would more than make up for megawatts lost through coal-fired unit retirements. PacifiCorp’s wind energy plans would add 1,100 megawatts of power, while the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project would add 3,000 megawatts, all within the next 5 to 10 years. That compares to incremental losses in coal-fired power over the next 20 years.
Yet how that shift would affect permanent job numbers, and where those jobs are based in Wyoming, still presents a big change for the state’s coal industry workers and the communities built around coal jobs.
“I have mixed feelings about the whole thing,” Monte Morlock, president of the Southwestern Wyoming Central Labor Council told WyoFile. “Wind turbines — I think they’re ugly as shit. But I know we need to do something. … We’d like to keep things the same, but things change.”
Morlock worked for many years in the mining industry in and around Rock Springs while also lobbying to protect environmentally sensitive areas of the state, such as the Wyoming Range and Adobe Town.
“In Rock Springs, if you close down a unit it will affect Black Butte [coal mine] or Bridger [coal mine] or both,” Morlock said. “It could take a fourth of their workforce. Every one person who works out there, there’s six in the community who are affected.”
PacifiCorp’s Wyoming network employs nearly 1,000 workers and the utility says they are an asset it wants to retain. “We are committed to our Wyoming employees. That is definitely in the forefront of our thoughts,” Teply told lawmakers last week.
It’s difficult to overstate the role that Rocky Mountain Power’s Jim Bridger plant plays in Rock Springs and Green River, said Rep. Stan Blake (D, HD-39, Green River) a member of the resources committee and a railroad conductor in southwest Wyoming.
“Anything I can do for Rocky Mountain Power, I’ll be there for you,” Blake told Teply.
Colin McKee, policy advisor to Gov. Matt Mead, said that while the state cannot influence the market trends driving utilities from coal to renewables, the administration is working closely with communities to help prepare for the changes ahead. Even if new energy capital is spent in different regions of the state, Wyoming energy hubs such as Rock Springs, Casper and Gillette are equipped to provide necessary services.
“If new wind farms are built outside of Medicine Bow, well that would be great for Medicine Bow,” McKee told WyoFile. “But if we could get some manufacturing companies to locate in Rawlins or Rock Springs, we’d like to get as much out of that as we can.”