Tribune Editorial: Cleaner power plan is the right move, but not the last move

FILE - This May 6, 2013 file photo shows a wind turbine farm owned by PacifiCorp near Glenrock, Wyo. (AP Photo/Matt Young)

The good news in Pacificorp’s new Integrated Resource Plan? A 59% reduction in carbon output over the next 10 years.

The bad news? Utah still could be the last state to be heavily coal powered.

The parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, which provides electricity to most of Utah, is accelerating its conversion to renewable energy, bringing on more solar and wind power. It will add 7,000 megawatts of renewable energy while eliminating 3,000 megawatts of coal-generated energy. It's shutting down 16 coal plants in Wyoming.

But Pacificorp is declining to move up closure of two massive coal-fired power plants in Emery County — Hunter and Huntington. Those still have end dates that extend to 2036 and 2038. At that point, the Wasatch Front could have the distinction of being the last major metro area in the country to rely on coal. We’ll also have haze persisting in our national parks and wilderness areas.

Pacificorp is under no legal obligation to clean up its power in Utah. The Trump administration canceled the previous president’s Clean Power Plan, which mandated more renewables. With this plan the company is making an economic decision with an environmental benefit. Solar and wind have gotten cheap enough that it’s actually getting less expensive to build solar and wind capacity than it is to run coal plants. And once they’re built, the fuel is free.

Pacificorp operates in six states, and that means it has to satisfy regulators in six states. In Wyoming and Utah, the political climate has leaned toward preserving coal plants and the mines that feed them. Oregon is just the opposite. The company has to meet a state requirement to stop burning coal for Oregon’s electricity by 2030.

In order to satisfy Oregon, more of the system’s remaining coal power has to be allocated to Utah.

Pacificorp has to keep the juice flowing when it’s dark and windless. That means having power sources that can ramp up and down as wind and sun come and go. The Emery County plants were built for continuous output, not ramping.

But Pacificorp has no plan to move to natural gas turbines. Much of the nation has headed that way because they burn cleaner and can ramp so much faster than a coal-fueled boiler. Pacificorp has elected to ramp Hunter and Huntington up and down as best they can rather than convert to gas. It’s also looking at a power storage project — a giant battery — to help reduce the ramping at peak times. In essence, it’s hoping to skip the natural gas step, going from coal to clean energy as technology allows.

Interestingly, the company expresses no interest in the small-scale nuclear power plant in the planning stages in Idaho. Despite it being a potential anytime source of power right in their distribution network, the low cost of alternatives and the historically large cost overruns of nuclear plants has made Pacificorp officials gunshy.

That should be a little sobering for the Utah cities and towns that are thinking about buying into that nuclear plant. If the big player doesn’t need it to keep the lights on, do the little players? Nuclear may indeed play a key role in decarbonizing worldwide, but perhaps not in the American West — where sun, wind, geothermal energy and technology are all in abundance.

Is this good news for Emery and Carbon counties, where the power plants and the coal to power them are the main players in the economy? Perhaps it buys a little more time, but there will be no return to glory days. In fact, those plants will burn less and less as more renewables come online. The economic transition in eastern Utah must continue.

Pacificorp’s plan is a giant step in the right direction, but it’s still not enough to put Utah squarely in the 21st century. Even cities like Salt Lake City and Park City, which are willing to pay more to be "off" fossil fuels in the next few years, would still physically rely on coal at certain times as long as those plants operate.

Two years from now, in Pacificorp’s next plan, Hunter and Huntington need accelerated closure dates. If the company is still holding back, Utah should consider Oregon’s plan to force it.