Utah is abandoning coal power because it is no longer good business, Editorial Board writes

Rocky Mountain Power is ahead of Utah leadership in moving on from coal.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) This June 3, 2011, photo shows the Huntington coal-fired Power Plant owned by PacifiCorp in Huntington, Utah.

If all goes according to plan — and that’s a pretty big “if” — none of Utah’s electricity will come from coal-fired power plants as of the year 2032. A mere 10 years in the future. After more than a century of Utah depending mostly on coal for its electricity.

That is incredibly good news. Not just because of what is happening, but because of why.

There are many factors that have gone into these decisions, from federal sticks and carrots to global market shifts. But the bottom line of the recent announcement from Rocky Mountain Power is the bottom line. As a business plan, coal no longer works. And the corporations that sell us our power are clear-eyed enough to see that.

PacifiCorp, RMP’s parent company, released its latest Integrated Resource Plan on the last day of March. It’s a report state regulators require every two years so that agencies and the public know just how our electric utilities plan to keep the lights on and do it in a way that is both efficient and cheap.

Previous reports indicated that Utah’s two major power plants, RMP’s Hunter and Huntington facilities in Emery County, might continue to disgorge coal smoke and ash, carbon dioxide and ozone as far into the future as 2042, as the company looked to transition to sustainable and low- or no-carbon sources.

Now, with previous RMP plans to move to wind and solar supplemented by a new kind of nuclear power generation, the end of coal power has been moved up. The Intermountain Power Plant near Delta and the Bonanza Power Plant near Vernal, the only other utility-scale power plants in the state, were already on schedule to stop burning coal before 2030.

The technology of power generation is moving quickly and in all the right directions. Not just solar and wind but also geothermal, hydrogen and new ideas on how to store electricity. Utah, as it happens, is a really good place to pursue all of these options. The cost of production goes down. The opportunity for new technologies to attract investors and provide skilled jobs goes up.

Adding a new kind of nuclear power plant into the formula may or may not make a big difference. A process called a fast-sodium nuclear reactor — developed by an outfit called TerraPower, backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — was already on the drawing board for a PacifiCorp facility near Kemmerer, Wyoming, and, now, for Hunter and Huntington as well.

The history of nuclear power in the United States is not encouraging. Delays, humongous cost over-runs, frightening accidents and an inability to decide what to do with the radioactive waste have dogged the promise of that carbon-free energy for decades. If this is the breakthrough nuclear advocates have been waiting for, that’s great. If it isn’t, well, solar, wind and other renewables will just have to pick up the slack.

It is true that PacifiCorp’s calculations have been influenced by various decisions of the federal government. The Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing the Hunter and Huntington plants, among others, to cut down on the amount of pollutants that rise from their stacks and spread across Utah and into other states. More recently, Congress enacted President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which was really more of a Carbon Reduction Act, that includes large financial incentives for the development of clean power across the country.

There is a fear, often promoted by those who just can’t envision a world that isn’t based on mining and burning coal, that these new sources of power will increase the bills for households and industry. They might. But any hike in the cost of electricity will be more than balanced by the reduction in everything from extreme weather events to the asthma cases and heart attacks that rise from a coal-based economy. And which cost a lot of money.

Increasingly, people who run big corporations are moving away from coal and other fossil fuels, not because of any woke tree-hugging impulse, but because it is good business. It is a case where private industry, not government, and certainly not Utah government, is leading the way.

Reconsider Harrison nomination

A reason to worry that Utah will fall behind in the global shift to clean energy, instead of taking its rightful place at the head of the pack, was heard last week when a Senate committee rejected Gov. Spencer Cox’s nomination of Salt Lake County Council member Suzanne Harrison to a position on the Utah Air Quality Board.

A former member of the Utah House who won a seat on the county council after being gerrymandered out of her legislative district, Harrison is also a physician, a trifecta of qualifications that should have made her an easy confirmation. But three Republican members of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Confirmation Committee had problems with the nominee’s political affiliation (she’s a Democrat) and her past reluctance to back tax breaks for oil refineries that might not have deserved them.

Worse, senators disclosed just how little they understand the issue. Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, apparently thinks that some polluting chemicals are actually good for us. “We do need CO2 in the air for plants to grow,” Owens said.

The idea that anything we can do will starve our atmosphere of the CO2 that plants take up is absurd.

Senate leadership should find a way to ignore such ignorance and put Harrison on the clean air panel.