You may pay more for power as Utah legislators advance bills to keep coal burning

Under a newly proposed state energy policy, affordability ranks lower and clean energy is lowest priority.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, presents legislation during a meeting of the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee at the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

The Legislature got its first look Monday at plans to keep burning coal longer, but the state’s advocate for electricity consumers wonders if Utahns will end up paying more for power because of it.

Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, presented two bills to his colleagues on the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee that he said would keep Utah electricity reliable and affordable.

“We don’t have a lot of rolling blackouts in Utah, and we don’t want to,” said Jack, who pointed to an assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. that shows most of the western United States is at an elevated risk for the next four years. “There could be shortfalls in our energy supply in extreme conditions.”

One of the bills, HB191, sets up new requirements for electric utilities that want to retire a power source. The bill makes no mention of coal, but it is clearly aimed at keeping Rocky Mountain Power’s two Emery County coal plants running beyond the 2032 dates the company set for closing the plants.

Under the measure, the Utah Public Service Commission, which regulates Rocky Mountain Power, would require the utility to replace a coal plant with a resource that produces the same amount or more power and have similar attributes to coal power.

“We have concerns that this bill will result in unintended additional costs and risks that will burden ratepayers,” warned Michele Beck, director of the Office of Consumer Services, which is charged with advocating for ratepayers in matters before the PSC.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michele Beck, director of the Office of Consumer Services, gives public comment during a meeting of the the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Beck said she shares the concerns about having reliable, affordable power, but current law already requires utilities to pursue the least cost/least risk options for power. At a time when alternatives are growing, coal may not be that option.

“If we don’t get it right,” Beck said, “it will result in a rate increase.”

Dangers of favoring one resource

Sophie Hayes, senior attorney for Western Resource Advocates, echoed that worry, noting that utilities conduct an extensive planning process and favoring one resource is an inadequate way to assess costs.

“They select a combination of resources,” Hayes said. “It’s the portfolio you look at to determine how cost-effective it is.”

Jack countered that, unlike new power sources, “we know what the price of these existing resources are. It’s the price we’re paying today.”

Coal is a commodity, however, and its price fluctuates. Availability also is a problem in the west. Rocky Mountain Power and others have struggled to find enough coal as the U.S. coal industry shrinks.

Beck also pointed out that Rocky Mountain is part of a six-state system. As other states exit coal, Utah could be left with more legacy costs from retiring the plants if the state insists on keeping them.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, asked if the bill will prevent the PSC from ensuring consumers are protected. “Are we tying the commission’s hands?”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, listens to Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, present a bill during a meeting of the the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

“This simply gives the Utah Public Service Commission some guidelines,” Jack responded.

The company most affected by HB191, Rocky Mountain Power, did not speak for or against the bill at Monday’s hearing.

Rewriting Utah energy policy

Jack also presented HB374, which is a rewrite of the state’s energy policy, including ranking the attributes that legislators want in energy.

In order, under the bill, Utah’s energy sources should be adequate, reliable, dispatchable, affordable, sustainable, secure and clean.

Beck wondered about the effect of putting affordable in fourth place.

Joan Entwistle, a Park City resident who commented online about the bill, found it “appalling” that sustainability and cleanliness were at the bottom of the rankings. “I feel strongly that we need to consider climate change.”

The measure does add some new energy technologies the state should consider, including geothermal, pumped storage and “hydrogen from all sources.” Most hydrogen is produced from methane in a process that generates greenhouse gases and is not considered a clean fuel if produced that way.

The plan also supports nuclear energy as an option, referring specifically to “”molten salt reactors producing medical isotopes.” That is a nod to the work of Brigham Young University professor Matthew Memmott, who has been researching nuclear power using thorium instead of uranium.

There are no commercially operating thorium reactors, but BYU holds patents on Memmott’s research and would stand to gain mightily if his work became widely used.

Jack and Beck offered to work together on the bill, and the GOP lawmaker said more tweaks may be coming to HB191 and HB374, but the committee voted to advance them anyway on straight party-line votes.

The two Democrats, Romero and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, voted against them.

Committee members appreciated the expertise of Jack, who is an electrical engineer and works in the power industry for Dixie Power, a rural electric cooperative serving southwestern Utah and parts of Arizona.

Rep. Joseph Elison,, R-Hurricane, called HB374 “brilliant legislation.”

“This is prudent,” added Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville.

“We’re passing out bills that have unintended consequences,” Romero cautioned. “I don’t think it’s ready.”