Top Utah lawmaker on clean energy: We’re betting on coal — for now

House Speaker Mike Schultz says other Western states are gambling on clean energy, and Utah shouldn’t go along.

Utah legislators plan to change how Rocky Mountain Power is regulated with the intent of getting the state’s largest electricity provider to keep burning coal longer.

Rocky Mountain is part of PacifiCorp’s six-state system that stretches from Oregon to Wyoming, and it answers to regulators in all six states. That has become more challenging as Oregon and California require cleaner energy to address climate change, while Utah and Wyoming are more concerned with lower cost energy and keeping their coal mines operating.

“If there are other states that want to gamble on their state’s energy future ... go ahead and let them do that. We want the state of Utah to make sure that we protect the citizens inside this state,” Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said during a media briefing Wednesday at the Capitol.

Schultz did not give specifics on what the regulatory change will be, and he said legislators are not opposed to developing clean energy sources. “We’re actually really supportive of that. We’d like to actually look at what the opportunities are.”

“But the question has to be asked if we shut down our coal power — our coal power generation, by the way, is some of the cleanest in the world — then what?” he said. " ... Rocky Mountain Power, when we’ve asked them, ‘OK, so then what?’ and they don’t have an answer.”

The 20-year plan

Rocky Mountain Power offered this response when The Salt Lake Tribune inquired about Schultz’s comments: “The company’s long-term resource plan is updated every other year and lays out specific action steps over a five- to 20-year planning period in which the company identifies new energy resources that the company has analyzed as being in the best interests of customers. The planning analysis accounts for costs to customers, assessments for risk, and service reliability.”

Rocky Mountain moved up the closing dates for its two Emery County coal-fired power plants to 2032 as part of the most recent 20-year integrated resource plan, which also includes large amounts of solar and wind energy, as well as batteries and hydro-storage to keep the grid operating when there is no sun or wind. The plan calls for replacing the two coal plants with smaller nuclear power plants. In all, Rocky Mountain’s plan adds about 10 times more power than the two coal plants can produce.

Schultz’s comments foretell a legislative session in which energy will be at the forefront. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have said they want more control over the state’s energy providers, principally Rocky Mountain, which supplies power to 80% of the state.

“The grids,” Schultz said, “are on the verge of collapse many times.”

Parties need to ‘work together’

While reliability has become more challenging, the Western grid has not been on the brink of collapse in the past couple of years.

“The short-term outlook is relatively better than it used to be,” Saad Malik, director of reliability assessments for the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, told a legislative committee in June.

“We anticipate a jampacked legislative session around the topic of energy. Our goal is to ensure Utahns have access to clean, affordable and reliable energy, and that Utah doesn’t take steps to delay our transition to cleaner energy resources,” said Josh Craft, government and corporate relations manager for Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Utah can have an energy mix that is affordable, reliable and clean, but we need to work together — industry, government and advocates — to plan for that future.”

Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp have had a rough year. The company was hit with a jury verdict last summer in an Oregon wildfire case that could cost billions of dollars to settle claims. The company saw a tenfold increase in liability insurance costs after that verdict, and its effort to put more insurance costs on Utah ratepayers has gotten blowback from Utah regulators and consumer advocates.

In December, those regulators and environmental groups came out against Rocky Mountain’s most recent “integrated resource plan,” saying the company is relying on unproven technologies and is already behind in finding new energy sources after it suspended its procurement process.

IPP in the crosshairs

Legislators, meanwhile, have been angling to seize control of the Intermountain Power Project in Millard County in a separate effort to keep burning coal, which is viewed as the most climate-damaging fossil fuel.

The Intermountain Power Agency is shutting down IPP’s coal plant and replacing it with a new-age plant that will burn natural gas and hydrogen. That change came at the behest of its biggest customer, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which under California law has to stop using coal power by 2025.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, has a bill that would replace the IPA board with a new one that is majority legislators. That potential change is driven by a belief that IPA could keep the coal-fired plant running even after the new gas power plant starts running in 2025.

That would require a billion-dollar investment to upgrade the coal plant, and it’s unclear who might buy the power as coal power has fallen out of favor. Last year, Utah’s coal mines produced the smallest amount of coal since 1976.

A push for nuclear

House Republicans also want to make nuclear energy a priority, although how they can do that remains muddy.

Nuclear power is seen nationally and globally as a clean energy source, but not a simple one. Regulatory hurdles have made nuclear projects slow to build, and the cost estimates on nuclear energy are far above what Utahns currently pay for power.

There are newer, safer technologies than the traditional reactors in use around the world, but they still rely on nuclear fission that produces radioactive waste, which must be stored for thousands of years.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems spent almost a decade pursuing a nuclear power project for two dozen Utah cities, but the project was abandoned as costs kept rising and no other utilities were willing to join the project.

At no point did the Legislature offer any financial support.

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