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A look back at the controversial investigation into the state's largest electrical utility
2020 Look Back

A look back at the controversial investigation into the state's largest electrical utility

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Jim Bridger Power Plant

A worker cycles through a long hall between one of the four units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant at Points of Rock near Rock Springs in 2014.

This year, Wyoming’s Public Service Commission investigated the state’s leading electrical utility. The core of its inquiry centered on the question of what role, if any, the state’s regulatory body should have in protecting the Wyoming coal communities that have reliably powered the nation for decades.

The reason why the state decided to investigate comes down to a disagreement over the future of Wyoming’s coal-fired power plants.

In October 2019, PacifiCorp released a resource plan outlining a vision that included the early retirement of several coal units. Under the utility’s controversial plan, PacifiCorp would retire coal units at the Naughton power plant in Kemmerer, Jim Bridger near Rock Springs and Dave Johnston in Glenrock. In turn, the company would invest in the expansion of renewable energy, battery storage and transmission infrastructure in Wyoming. Transitioning to more renewable energy would save customers millions of dollars, the company said.

But the state does not want the coal-fired power plants to retire.

For the small towns built around PacifiCorp’s coal plants here, the news was nothing short of devastating. Shuttering the state’s coal plants would be ruinous for communities deeply dependent on the facilities for jobs and economic activity, critics of the plan said. So on Nov. 13, with the governor’s endorsement, the Public Service Commission launched an investigation into PacifiCorp’s plan.

An unequivocal mission

For decades, the Wyoming Public Service Commission has upheld an unequivocal mission: “provide safe and reliable service to customers at just and reasonable rates.”

Though it has statutory authority to investigate and hold a contested case hearing on a utility’s plan, no investigation garnered as much attention as the one into PacifiCorp.

PacifiCorp is the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, which provides about 146,000 residents in Wyoming with power. It’s a big utility, the largest of its kind in Wyoming. Its service territory spans across six states.

Every other year, the company gathers a team to generate what is called an “integrated resource plan.” The plan outlines a 20-year roadmap for how the utility will provide the least costly, most reliable electricity to consumers.

It’s a complicated process that can take months. Throughout it, the utility attempts to forecast what economic and political conditions or new technologies will exist in the future, and how they could influence the cost of funneling electricity to consumers.

As of late, the process has arguably taken a more political tone in Wyoming. That’s in part because under its most recent plan, PacifiCorp wants to retire some of its coal units early.

Findings of deficiency

Over the course of this year, the Public Service Commission held public hearings in Rock Springs and Kemmerer, communities whose fates remain deeply intertwined with the coal-fired power plants there. The commission also hosted several technical hearings. It asked key stakeholders — including advocates for consumers, landowners, industry and local governments — to submit testimony and briefs to guide the commissioners.

The commission then held a consequential public hearing in October to present the results of its investigation into the publicly regulated utility, PacifiCorp.

Along the way, PacifiCorp vehemently defended the integrity of its plan.

The 11-month long investigation raised several pressing questions for the commission: What is the purpose of an integrated resource plan? How would the commission’s determinations ultimately effect ratepayers’ pockets down the road?

And perhaps most critically: Should the commission require utilities to consider the impact of its decisions on workers and their communities?

In the eyes of the commission, PacifiCorp’s integrated resource plan fell short on multiple fronts.

For one, the utility did not adequately consider what it would mean to keep coal units operating for their full life cycles, the commission concluded. Nor did PacifiCorp sufficiently interrogate the potential reliability and generation capacity issues associated with renewable energy, commissioners said. Furthermore, the utility neglected to consider the potential of retrofitting its coal fleet with carbon capture.

Ultimately, the public utility also overlooked the “devastating” economic impacts prematurely retiring its coal plants would have on local and state communities, according to the commission.

But even though the commission found the utility’s plan deficient, regulators said it did not find it appropriate to require the utility to calculate the socioeconomic consequences of retiring coal-fired power plants in its integrated resource plan, at least not for now.

Instead, the commission said it would consider asking utilities to include an “economic impact assessment” in future plans or other requests. However, more discussion and rule making would be required to impose any new standard for the integrated resource plan.

The debate over whether to include socioeconomic consequences in a plan like PacifiCorp’s has inspired the commission to host a conference early next year to consider revising the process.

What that will mean for communities whose lifeblood depends on coal remains to be seen.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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