As Utah’s drought persists, clean energy advocates say it’s time to power down water-guzzling coal plants

A more rapid transition to renewable energy could free up much-needed sources of water in the nation’s second-thirstiest state.

Utah is under yet another drought emergency declaration, with farmers facing more shortages and homeowners bracing for another season of restrictions. As the West faces a drier future fueled by climate change, some green technology advocates are looking to tap the energy sector as a potential source of water savings.

Power production from coal and natural gas needs large amounts of water to create the steam that drives turbines, and even more water to cool a plant’s condensers. But burning those fossil fuels is helping to drive a climate crisis that makes water and precipitation increasingly scarce in Utah.

“One of the missing conversations I see in our debate over proposals and policies to address the drought centers on our state’s dependency on coal-fired power,” said Edwin Stafford, a marketing professor at Utah State University whose research focuses on renewables and clean technology.

Last year, 61% of Utah’s net electricity generation came from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas made up 24% of the state’s power portfolio.

Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest energy provider, consumes an average of about 29,000 acre-feet of water annually at its two coal plants and three natural gas plants, according to the latest Integrated Resource Plan released by its parent company, PacifiCorp.

That’s more than 9.4 billion gallons a year, or about 26 million gallons a day.

The Intermountain Power Plant, or IPP, near Delta, is Utah’s largest coal plant, although the bulk of its customers are in California. That facility reported withdrawing 13,300 acre-feet of Utah water last year, or about 4.2 billion gallons.

“People don’t connect water usage with coal power,” Stafford said. “But we need to be concerned about this.”

Stafford wrote a piece for Utah Policy last year that estimated water consumption from the state’s energy sector in 2020 at 16.6 billion gallons or more.

This extensive water guzzling, he said, calls for a rapid transition to wind and solar. Those sources of energy use minuscule amounts of water in comparison, mostly to clean turbine blades and photovoltaic panels.

But Stafford sees a major roadblock in Utah.

“There is a lot of political pressure,” he said, “to preserve our coal industry.”

Why Utah pushes king coal

He pointed to a 2017 report by the Governor’s Office of Energy Development, or OED, called “Advancing Utah Coal.” The study values Utah’s coal economy at $800 million, noting the industry provides 2,000 high-paying jobs and supplies a significant tax base in rural counties. The report further notes that as a cheap source of electricity, Utah’s coal counties have helped drive economic growth and development in urban areas.

“It’s basically a defense of the coal industry here in Utah,” Stafford said of the report.

Representatives with OED declined to do an interview for this story. The office’s executive director, Thom Carter, wrote an op-ed in the Deseret News in January arguing that ditching fossil fuels is “not an option if we want to maintain our modern life.”

He instead favored carbon capture, a method that plucks carbon dioxide from a plant’s emissions and stores it underground. While Carter acknowledged the technology decreases a coal plant’s efficiency and drives up electricity rates by 80%, he said such challenges “aren’t insurmountable” with more business investment and research.

“Here’s the problem with carbon capture,” Stafford said in response, “… It’s very water intensive as well.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Intermountain Power Plant near Delta in 2013. The facility reported withdrawing 13,300 acre-feet of Utah water last year, or about 4.2 billion gallons.

A 2020 evaluation by the Energy and Policy Institute, a privately funded watchdog organization for fossil fuel and utility industries, found carbon capture nearly doubles a coal plant’s water consumption and increases consumption at gas plants by 75%.

The “Advancing Utah Coal” report further notes that demand for coal has lagged in recent years. That’s partly because of market forces — natural gas is generally more cost-effective than coal. Renewables like wind and solar are becoming increasingly more competitive, too. And the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia show that locally produced renewable energy can be more cost-stable than fossil fuels.

“Prices [for fossil fuels] are set by global forces,” Stafford said. “Even if something is drilled right here in Utah, the price is going to be set by international issues ... [like] OPEC, war, hurricanes and whenever you have a natural disaster.”

Federal environmental policies targeting improved water and air quality have also forced many coal plants around the nation to close.

Eastern Utah’s Bonanza Power Plant, for example, will likely retire by 2030 due to a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its emission controls. And the Carbon Power Plant near Helper shut down in 2015 due to stricter regulations on mercury emissions.

Growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions at the consumer and state levels are stifling demand for coal as well. The California customers buying the bulk of IPP’s power are dropping their coal contracts, pushing that plant to convert to natural gas by 2025 and, eventually, source its energy from hydrogen.

Water will serve as the primary source of IPP’s hydrogen, splitting molecules into oxygen and hydrogen gases through electrolysis. But the Intermountain Power Agency notes it will consume “substantially” less water than the plant’s current coal-fueled generation.

“Total water consumption for both making hydrogen through electrolysis and operating IPP’s new electricity-generating units will be less than three-fourths of the project’s current consumption,” the agency notes in its 2021 annual report, “and around a third of IPP’s water consumption at its coal-fueled peak.”

Plans for Utah’s remaining coal plants

PacifiCorp, too, has bowed to market pressures and plans to phase out its coal operations on an accelerated timeline. The utility will retire 14 of its 22 coal-generating units by 2030, according to the Integrated Resource Plan. But its two Utah coal plants — Hunter and Huntington in Emery County — have no firm plans to go offline anytime soon.

“The fossil fuel resources, one of their important roles in electricity production is the fact they’re dispatchable,” said David Eskelsen, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp. “They can respond as customer demand changes throughout the day.”

The utility is working to build up its battery storage so it can still use solar and wind power when the sun isn’t shinning and the wind isn’t blowing, Eskelsen said, but coal power will remain an important bridge until there’s enough capacity.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The sun rises behind steam from a cooling unit at the coal-fired Hunter power plant south of Castle Dale. There are tentative plans to shutter this facility in 2042.

“Retirement of a major generating resource is something that has to be done quite deliberately and carefully,” he said. “You have to make sure you have resources to replace the ones that are retiring.”

And despite the state’s enthusiasm for carbon capture, it’s not an option PacifiCorp is considering for its Utah plants.

“Because of its high cost,” he said, “it has never been selected as part of the preferred portfolio.”

The company tentatively plans to power down Huntington in 2036 and Hunter in 2042. The fate of those plants’ water remains unknown.

“What happens to those water rights and that water when those plants are eventually retired,” Eskelsen said, “is a decision the company will make in the future.”

But with the now-demolished Carbon Power Plant, the utility said it’s in negotiations with Price to sell one of its water sources, the Colton wells, to help meet future municipal water needs in Price and nearby Helper. The Carbon plant also had water shares in the Price River and Scofield Reservoir, but PacifiCorp has no current plan to sell those resources.

“In the future,” Eskelsen said, “these water resources may be available for use by various local water users through short-term lease arrangements.”

How much will less water for energy help?

Ultimately, the 29,000 annual acre-feet PacifiCorp uses to produce power is a drop in the bucket of Utah’s water consumption.

The utility’s water use would supply about 2% of Utah’s population, Kim Wells, communications director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, noted in an email. And Utahns have the second-highest per-capita domestic water consumption in the nation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But the Great Salt Lake’s record low last summer, along with the megadrought gripping the West, is causing more Utahns — and their lawmakers — to examine their water consumption habits. The past legislative session saw an unprecedented number of bills aimed at conservation and shoring up the state’s water resources.

Among them is HB393, which requires a study of how much water IPP’s hydrogen plans will require. It also calls on the state engineer to examine how current power production is impacting the state’s water cycle.

“Ultimately, I want to know the accurate data,” said Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City and the bill’s sponsor. “If coal is consuming a lot of water, I want to know that. If hydrogen consumes a lot of water, I want to know that.”

Stafford said he also is encouraged by action happening at the city and county level. During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers approved the the Community Renewable Energy Act, which allows municipalities to work with Rocky Mountain Power to source their power from renewables. At least 24 cities and counties pledged to become 100% renewable by 2030, including Salt Lake City, Ogden and Park City.

“It puts the cities and counties in the driver’s seat,” Stafford said. “This is one of the ways I think we can move Utah onto a path, much more quickly, to renewable energy.”

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