End of Utah coal power in sight as Rocky Mountain Power moves to renewables and nuclear

Utility plans to reduce role of Emery County coal plants to comply with federal ozone law before closing them completely by 2032.

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune File Photo The sun rises behind steam from a cooling unit at the coal-fired Hunter power plant south of Castle Dale, in Emery County, on July 26, 2017. Rocky Mountain Power has announced it will shutter its coal-fired power plants in Emery County by 2032, and shift to nuclear and renewable energy production.

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Rocky Mountain Power says it will shut down its coal-fired power plants in Emery County by 2032 and replace them with smaller nuclear-powered plants in the same locations.

The utility company also announced it will reduce operations at the two coal plants starting this summer and install technology to remove some of the pollutants. With that combination, the company believes it can comply with the federal Ozone Transfer rule in the remaining years the plants stay open.

On Friday afternoon, PacifiCorp, the Oregon-based parent company of Rocky Mountain, released its Integrated Resource Plan, which explains where the company intends to get power across its six-state system for the next 20 years, and that plan puts a period at the end of coal power in Utah.

That end comes years before the original closure dates for the Huntington (2036) and Hunter (2042) plants. The other two utility-scale coal plants still operating in Utah — the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta and the Bonanza Power Plant near Vernal — are also expected to stop burning coal before 2030.

Within a decade, Utah will have no coal-fired power plants for the first time in more than a century.

[READ: Why is Rocky Mountain Power closing its Utah coal plants? Here’s what we know]

“We as commissioners and the people in Emery County had hopes that our coal plants would be so valuable they’d make it past even the 2042 closure date,” said Emery County Commissioner Lynn SItterud. “We’re sorry to see the coal plants go, but we’re excited to see the nuclear come.”

The plan also firmly plants Utah’s principal provider of electricity on a carbon-free path.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune End of an era: A Rocky Mountain Power decision to end coal-fired electricity production means the Huntington Power Plant west of Huntington will shut down in less than 10 years.

“First and foremost, we’re going to see unprecedented growth at a faster pace to ramp out procurement of renewables and storage, " said Rick Link, senior vice president for resource planning procurement and optimization at PacifiCorp,

In addition to the two proposed nuclear plants, the plan includes significantly more wind, solar and storage capacity. Link said incentives in the Inflation Reduction act were particularly instrumental in significantly growing renewables and storage since the last 20-year plan was released in 2021.

Gregory Todd, director of the Utah Office of Energy Development, said the state will continue to pursue standards that keep energy affordable and reliable in the state. “We’re glad RMP recognizes those standards as well, and it’s apparent in the newest iteration of its IRP,” said Todd.

“Of course, this conversation is happening in part because of the extreme agenda of the Biden administration’s (Environmental Protection Agency), but we trust RMP’s processes to ensure they’re making the best decisions for their customers — by making plans and decisions that keep costs low and energy reliable,” he added.

Across the six-state system, Pacificorp says it will have 20,000 megawatts of wind and solar power by 2032, four times what it has now. It will also have 7,400 megawatts of energy storage by 2029. Storage is seen as a crucial element to moving away from the “baseload” power that fossil fuels provide.

“We applaud PacifiCorp’s focus on the deployment of clean energy over the next decade. ... To put this in perspective, PacifiCorp’s plan to have 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy and over 7000 megawatts of energy storage installed by 2032 is equivalent to the electricity use in six million homes.” explained Logan Mitchell, climate scientist and energy analyst at Utah Clean Energy.

“We welcome an accelerated transition away from coal and PacifiCorp’s stated commitment to its coal communities,” said Sophie Hayes, Utah clean energy manager at Western Resource Advocates. “The next 10 years are critical for mitigating the most harmful impacts of climate change. ... The devil is in the details, and we’ll be watching PacifiCorp’s operations and resource additions closely.”

The nuclear plans hinge on success in Kemmerer, Wyo. That is where PacifiCorp and Bill Gates-backed Terra Power plan to build a 500-megawatt plant that combines nuclear energy with molten salt storage. That combination allows faster dispatching of power to compensate for the ebbs and flows of wind and solar.

Ground has not been broken in Kemmerer, and there are still regulatory hurdles. Still, the Kemmerer plant is scheduled to come online in 2029. “There will have to be parallel construction schedules” with Kemmerer to get the Emery County plants online when the coal plants are closed in 2031 and 2032, Link acknowledged.

Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of HEAL Utah, was pleased that there will be “lives saved” when the coal plants are closed, but she was pessimistic that the nuclear plants could be built at a reasonable cost and on time. She noted the Kemmerer plant is already behind schedule.

“In short, we have never seen a nuclear power plant come online at the original cost and timeline,” said Tuddenham. “If that same thing is going to happen at Hunter and Huntiingon, it doesn’t help the community.”

Tuddenham also said the plants will also have to store their nuclear waste since the federal government has yet to devise a solution to store the waste, which is unsafe for thousands of years. “They’re going to have this waste in their backyard in a way that they’ve never had before. The storage is going to be for a long-term period, if not forever.”

Todd said if carbon neutrality is the goal, “then nuclear has to be part of those conversations. Hunter and Huntington are great places for those projects to take place considering the existing infrastructure and talented workforce.”

Earlier this year Rocky Mountain Director of Governmental Affairs Thom Carter told Utah legislators the company was all in on suing the federal government over the Ozone Transfer rule, which puts limits on how much pollution can drift from one state to another. Ozone-causing pollutants from the two Emery County plants are reaching Colorado and beyond, and that could have forced Rocky Mountain to install expensive pollution equipment or shut the plants down.

“There are real technical and procedural issues with the rule and, if implemented as written, there’s a real risk to the system reliability and adverse effects on customers in affected communities,” Carter said in January. “We, Rocky Mountain Power, plan to fully litigate this rule. We are marshaling all of our resources to put up the fight, but we need the state to be the lead and loudest voice in the fight.”

Utah legislators allocated $2 million to help with that fight. Rocky Mountain spokesman Dave Eskelsen says the company will still support a state lawsuit on the issue, but it believes it has a plan to meet EPA’s requirements.

That plan includes ramping down power production from the plants during the ozone season from May to September, and adding “selective non-catalytic reduction” equipment at the plants to remove some of the pollutants. SNCR is cheaper to install but less effective than “selective catalytic reduction (SCR),” which removes far more pollutants. But the company believes that, combined with the ramping down, will be enough to comply.

“The state will continue to fight back against the ozone transport rule, but it’s wise for RMP to have a plan in place regardless of how those efforts turn out,” added Todd.

“It’s not one or the other” with regard to a lawsuit and meeting the requirements, said Link. “We have a federal law we have to comply with within a month.”

For years, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has targeted the two Utah power plants, pushing for their early retirement. The group welcomed Friday’s announcement, but voiced some doubts that RMP’s plan would accomplish much by way of emission reduction in the near term.

”We don’t want to bet this all on a wish and a hope and a dream,” said Lindsay Beebe, a Utah-based Sierra Club representative. “This has to be real. It has to be achievable.”

She scoffed at the utility’s decision to install SNCR. According to a calculation the group provided, RMP’s plan would reduce NOx emissions 3,180 tons a year versus 12,270 tons were SCR installed on all five of the two plants’ units. ”SNCR has a significantly cheaper capital cost, but actually it is less cost effective than SCR when you look at tons of pollution avoided,” Beebe said. “Hunter and Huntington are two of the most polluting coal plants in the country, and have been allowed to operate that way because PacifiCorp has been obstructing the Clean Air Act for decades. ... This is another example of PacifiCorp avoiding their obligation to operate coal plants responsibly by crafting a plan behind closed doors that falls short of keeping the public safe.”

Rocky Mountain’s workers in Emery County have been told of the plans, Link said, and the company recognizes there is a wide community impact to closing down the coal plants, and they are trying to mitigate it, including locating the nuclear plants in the county. “We’re also seeing the advancement of new technologies that will lessen the blow,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coal transportation and rail operations along US-6 in Helper on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. Changes will be coming to Utah's coal country with a Rocky Mountain Power decision to end coal-fired plant production by 2032.

Link acknowledged that the company’s plans are aggressive and rely on technologies still being developed. “If we see things not working out, we’ll have to pivot and adjust.”

Sitterud is hopeful that workers at the coal plants can become workers at the nuclear plants. He hopes research at the county’s San Rafael Research Center can come up with new beneficial uses for coal. “We’re trying to learn to do other things with coal so if the plants shut down, the mines don’t.”

Jeremy Pearson, director of the research center, has a background in nuclear engineering and said the center is also “well positioned to support a transition to nuclear energy by offering research infrastructure and facilities for advanced nuclear power development, thermal energy storage and other integrated energy systems applications research, advanced fuel cycle and power cycle research, space for commercial manufacturing, and workforce training and development in collaboration with USU-Eastern.”

Republican Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, who represents Emery County in the Utah Legislature, had mixed feelings about the announcement. ”I’m glad we’re going to be able to see power production continue in Emery County and not close those plants completely. Everybody needs power, I guess.”

Hinkins is worried that the decision to close down the coal-fired plants could cause energy prices to increase in the short-term. ”The companies that own the mines may see this as an opportunity to sell overseas since they’ll be losing customers in the state. They’ll have no incentive to sign a long-term contract with power plants in Utah and can make more money selling on the international market,” Hinkins said.

Eskelsen said coal costs are already a challenge. “Increased prices in international markets and recent supply constraints at local mines are currently having an adverse impact on PacifiCorp’s ability to secure consistent delivery of coal supply today.”

Freshman Rep. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, who is a renewable energy advocate, was elated by the news. ”The expedited closures of Utah’s coal plants marks the beginning of a new era of opportunity for our state. Those of us who have worked for years to advance the transition to cleaner and more affordable energy saw the writing on the wall following similar announcements in Oregon in 2019,” Blouin said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, a former energy company CEO, was much more skeptical. ”That’s all predicated on the fact that these small nuclear plants are cost-effective,” Albrecht said. “This is only a two to three-year Integrated resource plan which they have to do. Many factors in generation and storage could change the future outlook in ten years.”

The latest plan also anticipates higher demand for electricity, a function of both rising population and a public that is turning more to electricity for transportation and heating buildings.

The forecasted demand grew so much that Rocky Mountain had to lower its estimates for how much of the total load it can switch to renewables by 2030. The 2021 plan estimated that the company would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 74% below 2005 levels by 2030. The 2023 plan says it will only reduce emissions by 70% by 2030, but the earlier coal plant retirements and other changes will bring the system to 87% below 2005 levels by 2035 and 100% (zero emissions) by 2050, Link said.

In 2021, Hunter and Huntington burned about 7.2 million tons of coal, according to the Utah Geological Survey. That’s more than half the coal Utah mines produced that year. The rest went to Intermountain Power Plant, which is to stop burning coal in two years, or was exported overseas.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.