Tribune editorial: Cox should veto bill that risks millions to preserve an antiquated coal-fired power plant

Our political class should be singing the praises of IPP Renewed instead of trying to get in its way.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction of a new green-energy system at International Power Project's coal-fired power plant in Delta on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox should veto the recently passed SB161, a bill that would risk millions, if not billions, in taxpayer money to preserve a coal-fired power plant we would all be better off without.

The bill passed by relatively narrow margins in both the House and the Senate, so a veto at least stands a chance of being sustained.

The bill, which carries the Orwellian title “Energy Security Amendments,” orders a complex process by which the state’s Public Service Commission would have to set a market price for the coal-fired power units due to be retired by the Intermountain Power Agency in rural Millard County.

IPA would then have to offer the units for sale on the open market and, if nobody is foolish enough to buy the 40-year-old facility at or above the supposed fair price, offer to sell them to the state for that amount.

The risk is that the state might be dumb enough to buy them. And put the taxpayers on the hook for not only the purchase price but millions, or billions, in necessary upgrades.

PSC representatives told a legislative committee that they really don’t know how to figure out how much the coal units are worth. That they would probably have to bring on an outside consultant at a cost to taxpayers of maybe $250,000.

Though the PSC might reasonably get away with setting the true market value of the Intermountain Power Project’s coal plants at a nice round $0.

Coal as a primary fuel for power generation is so 20th century. Coal is getting harder to come by. Environmental regulations are, and should be, getting more stringent and more expensive to follow. The financial sector is more and more reluctant to bankroll such antiquated, dirty technology.

Yet the Utah Legislature is pushing for its preservation because, well, maybe because they love the smell of coal ash in the morning.

IPA is a public agency owned by 23 Utah municipalities. Those cities have first right to the power generated there, but a bit more than 80% of it is sold to utilities in California.

Those California power agencies are prohibited from buying any more power from coal. And nobody else is really in a position to buy that juice if the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power won’t. Neither the demand nor the transmission capacity exist.

Some lawmakers envision the creation of new, power-hungry data centers as buyers for the coal power. But that makes no sense at all. Big Tech, whether out of sincere devotion or virtue signaling, is big on renewable energy.

Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on such operations, especially the airborne pollutants and the piles of hazardous coal ash that accumulate nearby.

That’s why IPA is well along in the project it calls IPP Renewed, forward-thinking and economically wise plan to decommission its coal units and replace them with a natural gas and hydrogen system.

It is a job-creating, taxpaying, self-financed system that will generate more power, using less water and reducing its environmental footprint to negligible levels.

That reduction in pollution and in greenhouse gases will go a long way, not only to keep IPP online, but to help the state as a whole meet the federal air-quality standards we now fall well short of.

Keeping those coal units producing, however, will make it more difficult for the state to meet those standards. It might mean that some other facility would have to be closed or cut back to make up the difference.

Our political class should be singing the praises of IPP Renewed — maybe even trying to take credit for it — instead of trying to get in its way. The new plant will take advantage of proven technologies to split hydrogen out of water, burn the hydrogen to produce energy, and watch the ignited hydrogen turn back into water. Something that’s pretty wonderful for a parched state such as ours.

The plan also includes storing hydrogen in underground salt domes, which the existing facility just happens to be sitting on top of, as a means of storing power for when demand climbs.

IPP Renewed is a huge step forward all the way around. Efforts to cling to coal-fired power are a giant lurch backwards.

Following the procedure set out by the bill would be long and complex and, thankfully, provide several opportunities to fall apart. Though not before spending a lot of money.

It would be better if Cox would just veto the measure and end all the foolishness now.