Rocky Mountain Power pauses new energy deals; can it meet clean-power goals?

The company has paused buying new energy sources while it weighs fire and legal challenges.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rocky Mountain Power's Huntington Power Plant in Emery County, on Thursday, July 21, 2022. Clean energy advocates are questioning whether Rocky Mountain can stick to its plan to retire the coal-fired plant by 2032.

Clean-energy advocates and state regulators are pushing back on Rocky Mountain Power’s 20-year plan for providing electricity in Utah, saying the company is relying on unproven technologies and hasn’t shown it can meet the plan’s timeline.

Rocky Mountain’s parent company PacifiCorp last September suspended its request for proposals for new energy projects, and environmental groups and consumer advocates say that impedes the short-term goals of the company’s 20-year “integrated resource plan” (IRP).

Released last spring, the company’s IRP set an ambitious schedule for adding 20,000 megawatts of solar and wind power by 2032 and an additional 7,400 megawatts in storage so the solar and wind power is available at all hours. It also moved up the closure dates of its Emery County coal-fired power plants to 2032, when it plans to launch smaller nuclear power plants in the same locations.

By suspending its procurement process, the company is “potentially rendering virtually every aspect of the IRP irrelevant and moot,” said the Interwest Energy Alliance, a trade group of solar and wind energy companies that wants to sell clean power to PacifiCorp. It was one of several groups to call on the Utah Public Service Commission to not approve the plan.

For its part, Rocky Mountain/Pacificorp says the suspension was necessary to evaluate the rapidly changing energy environment in the West. The company is scheduled to provide an update to the Public Service Commission by the end of January.

“January is a key date,” Rick Link, senior vice president for resource planning procurement and optimization at PacifiCorp, told an October meeting of stakeholders.

The company cited four reasons for suspending its request for proposals for new energy sources:

• A court’s stay of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Ozone Transport Rule, which would require the coal plants to add expensive pollution controls and/or reduce burning during the peak summer months.

• Future federal rules regarding greenhouse gas emissions, “with impacts on our system to be determined.”

• Wildfire risk and associated liability, including a class action lawsuit in Oregon that could cost the company millions in settlement costs.

• “Evolving extreme weather risks that necessitate further decision making regarding PacifiCorp’s operational and resource requirements.”

Rocky Mountain’s plan includes strategies for reduced operation of the coal plants to comply with the Ozone Transfer Rule. With the company now saying it was re-evaluating in light of a court stay of the rule, environmental groups wonder if that means the company will burn more coal, which is the most climate-damaging fossil fuel.

“You’re pausing more clean energy sources to solve a problem that gas and coal have caused. That seems a little crazy to me,” Paula Decker, a board member on the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, told that same October meeting.

Rocky Mountain/PacifiCorp officials downplay the procurement pause and say it won’t materially affect their longterm plans. They also say they are continuing to seek new energy sources even without the formal request for proposals. “We take this procurement process quite seriously,” said Link. “The suspended RFP process does not relieve us of that obligation.”

The Sierra Club is also challenging the plan for replacing the coal plants with nuclear plants, arguing that the not yet operating Natrium reactors will rely on unproven technology that is unlikely to be ready in the early 2030s when Rocky Mountain said it would make the switch from coal.

“It is not a foregone conclusion that reliability shortfalls must be met with nuclear energy,” said Sierra Club attorney Rose Monahan. “There are other combinations of resources that can equally meet reliability needs.”

All the planning takes place in a legal process at the PSC that in its best days moves at a snail’s pace. But in this case Rocky Mountain filed its plan late and then suspended its procurement process, leaving regulators scrambling to keep up with moving targets.

“It feels like a lot of time being spent in limbo,” said Michele Beck, director of the Utah Office of Consumer Services, which advocates for Rocky Mountain’s Utah customers.

The Utah Office of Consumer Services, the state agency that advocates for residential electricity customers, also calls on the PSC to not approve the plan, and it also cites the delayed planning and procurement processes. It also questioned why nuclear and hydrogen-fueled “peaker” plants were given preference over natural gas and geothermal technologies.

The Utah Division of Public Utilities, the state entity charged with carrying out the regulations that the Public Service Commission sets, said the PSC should reject Rocky Mountain’s plans for several reasons, including the suspension of procurement and the inclusion of unproven nuclear technology.

The Utah Association of Energy Users, which represents large industrial electricity customers, asks PSC not to approve, citing the delayed process and concerns that the nuclear technology hasn’t been sufficiently vetted.

Two clean-energy advocates, Western Resource Advocates and Utah Clean Energy, were not opposed to the PSC approving the plan, but both noted weaknesses in the process and schedule. Utah Clean Energy also called for future plans to consider more geothermal resources.

Texas-based Fervo Energy also said the PSC shouldn’t approve the plan because it hasn’t given adequate consideration to enhanced geothermal energy. Fervo recently started operating the nation’s first enhanced geothermal plant in the Nevada, where water is pumped underground through hot rock to produce hot water that can generate power. Fervo is working to launch a similar plant in Beaver County. Unlike wind and solar power sources, geothermal plants can produce clean energy continuously.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.