Huge Western coal burner ponders shift to renewables

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2019

 Jim Bridger power plant in Wyoming. Photo credit: Howie Garber/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom

The Jim Bridger power plant in Wyoming is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector. Howie Garber/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom

Another Western utility thinks it can save money by swapping coal for renewables.

PacifiCorp, which serves 1.9 million customers in seven Western states, released updated modeling last week showing it would save its customers hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decades by retiring coal plants early and replacing their electricity with renewable power.

Those results are part of a growing trend in the western United States. Utilities like Idaho Power Co., Public Service Co. of New Mexico and Xcel Energy Inc. have all announced plans to ditch coal, bypassing natural gas in favor of renewables like wind and solar. The trend has considerable climate ramifications. PacifiCorp’s fleet of coal plants has long made it one of the most carbon-intensive utilities in America.

“It appears that PacifiCorp is giving serious consideration to early coal plant closures that would dramatically cut pollution, save customers a boatload of money, and turbo charge renewable energy build-out,” said Christopher Thomas, who follows the company at the Sierra Club. “The only question that remains is will the company follow through?”

Indeed, where the Portland, Ore.-based utility goes next is a matter of considerable speculation. The company has found itself in the middle of a growing tug of war in recent years. Pacific states like Oregon and Washington, the company’s second- and fourth-largest markets, are pushing power companies to ditch coal as part of state efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Wyoming, PacifiCorp’s third-largest market and home to four of its 10 coal plants, has fiercely objected (Climatewire, Feb. 15).

The modeling results released last week are part of the run-up to the unveiling next month of PacifiCorp’s integrated resource plan, which governs the utility’s decisions surrounding power plants. That plan will be subject to approval by regulators in the states the utility serves.

The top five scenarios in the company’s most recent modeling results show the company would save consumers money by closing coal plants early and building transmission infrastructure to serve new wind farms, said Bob Gravely, a spokesman for the utility.

“Many of these plants are approaching the end of their lives, but it is being driven largely by market forces,” Gravely said. “The economics of coal is changing versus the economics of renewables, of gas and other alternatives.”

The utility’s planning scenarios vary in important ways. The leading alternative would save customers almost $600 million over the next 20 years. It envisions retiring 17 coal units with more than 3,200 megawatts of capacity by 2031. Between 2009 and 2018, those plants’ combined annual carbon emissions averaged 24.6 million tons, an E&E News review of EPA data shows. That figure only includes emissions associated with PacifiCorp. The utility co-owns a number of coal plants with other power companies.

The second-ranked scenario in PacifiCorp’s modeling saves $550 million over 20 years. It calls for retiring 15 coal units by 2031. Those units boast around 2,500 MW of capacity and reported an average annual carbon total of 19.7 million tons.

The difference in emissions largely owes to when PacifiCorp retires the Jim Bridger power plant in western Wyoming. The plant is one of the largest coal facilities in the United States. PacifiCorp owns two-thirds of Jim Bridger, while Idaho Power owns the remainder.

In PacifiCorp’s first modeling scenario, three of Jim Bridger’s four units are closed by 2030; it is completely shut down by 2032. The second calls for retiring two Jim Bridger units by 2030 and leaving the other two running until 2037.

“I think what happens with two of the units at Bridger is what PacifiCorp is in the process of deciding,” said Nancy Kelly, a senior policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates, which champions a shift to clean energy. “They need to undertake further analysis.”

Environmentalists are pushing PacifiCorp to close the plant entirely in 2025. Wyoming officials have urged PacifiCorp to keep it open, citing jobs and reliability concerns.

How fast the utility pushes may depend on how quickly other utilities close their coal plants. PacifiCorp’s modeling shows a tightening Western market for electricity. Its final modeling results next month are expected to show whether it can afford to switch Jim Bridger off or keep it running for years to come.