Why is Rocky Mountain Power closing its Utah coal plants? Here’s what we know.

The utility company plans to replace its coal-fired power plants in Utah with nuclear and renewable energy.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hunter Power Plant as seen on Dec. 8, 2014. Rocky Mountain Power is looking to replace the Emory County power plant by 2032, replacing all of its coal-fired energy in Utah with nuclear and renewable energy.

Rocky Mountain Power announced Friday that it plans to shut down its last two remaining coal-fired power plants in Utah. Here is a quick overview of what it means and what comes next.

Why are they closing the coal plants?

Rocky Mountain has been phasing out coal power for years because of concerns over climate change and pollution.

The company also faced pressure from the federal government to limit plant pollution that drifts to other states. Company officials decided it was better to reduce power from the plants to meet federal pollution standards over the short term, while building new, small-scale nuclear power plants as replacements.

Huntington was targeted for closure in 2036, and Hunter was due to stop burning coal in 2042. Under the announcement, both would close by 2032.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coal transportation and rail operations along US-6 in Helper on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

The two other coal plants in the state — the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta and Bonanza Power Plant near Vernal — are also expected to stop burning coal. IPP is planning to convert to burning a combination of natural gas and hydrogen, and Bonanza is expected to close by the end of the decade under a court settlement made years ago.

Where will our electricity come from?

In place of the coal plants, PacifiCorp — Rocky Mountain’s Oregon-based parent company — is making a major push toward wind and solar power. Additionally, the company is seeking to build two molten salt nuclear power plants at the same locations, in order to take advantage of the transmission lines already in place.

The design of those nuclear power-based utility plants will be similar to a plant Rocky Mountain is currently seeking permits to build in Wyoming.

How will the local economy be impacted?

As of 2020, there were about 1,150 jobs in the mining industry in Carbon and Emery counties, according to a report last year from the Kem Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. About half of those jobs were expected to disappear by 2060, in part due to the anticipated transition of the two power plants, but also because of general global trends away from coal.

The report forecasts shrinking jobs and wages under the planned closure, but an accelerated closure schedule made those economic hits harder — with jobs in the two counties dipping from 16,000 in 2020 to just under 12,000 in 2035, and total wages dipping by roughly 10% before rebounding.

[READ: End of Utah coal power in sight as Rocky Mountain Power moves to renewables and nuclear]

The nuclear plants will offset some of the losses, but not all of them. The closures will make coal exports more essential to mining operations.

The Gardner report also emphasized the need to diversify the two counties’ economies.

Why are they doing this now?

PacifiCorp files an Integrated Resource Plan with state regulators every two years, laying out its anticipated energy needs and planned investments in new electrical generation and transmission for the next 20 years. Friday’s news was contained in the company’s 2023 IRP.

It also coincides with major federal investments in new electrical generation and infrastructure.

Is the government forcing RMP to transition to renewables?

Not exactly.

The government requires producers to invest in the cheapest and safest forms of energy. Recent studies have shown that renewable energy can be generated at a lower cost than fossil fuels.

As mentioned above, the transition will also keep Rocky Mountain Power in line with the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone rules. While not forcing the change, the federal Inflation Reduction Act has offered millions of dollars in tax incentives to convert to clean energy.