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PacifiCorp Coal

PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant and the adjacent Westmoreland coal mine are seen in 2014 amid the rolling landscape southwest of Kemmerer. A federal judge ruled Friday that the company does not have to publicly release financial information related to its coal plants. 

Wyoming’s largest power provider will not have to publish the cost of running its coal plants, despite environmental groups and state regulators pressing for that data to be made public, a judge in Washington decided Friday.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission had tried to force PacifiCorp – the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power – to release the economics of its coal fleet. The company has maintained that the data is confidential and could compromise its place in the open market for electricity.

The decision was a blow to groups like the Sierra Club, which has lobbied for that coal data in Oregon. The organization supports a transition to green energy, which includes shuttering the coal-fired power plants that currently provide about 30 percent of the country’s electricity mix.

Their central argument has been that coal is becoming increasingly more expensive to burn in comparison to wind and solar.

“While it’s unfortunate that the public won’t get a chance to see PacifiCorp’s analysis of the cost of their coal plants, state regulators who oversee the utility’s spending decisions already have,” said Sierra Club’s managing attorney, Gloria Smith, in a statement.

“There is growing evidence that PacifiCorp’s aging coal plants are more expensive to run than building cheaper, cleaner options like wind and solar, and that continued use of coal will mean higher electricity bills for the utility’s customers.”

The green pressure on PacifiCorp could have a significant impact on Wyoming. Four of the company’s plants are in the state and Wyoming coal feeds PacifiCorp plants.

Wyoming coal is cheap, particularly when the power plants are located nearby. But though the large surface mines of the Powder River Basin can be excavated at low cost, competition from renewable power has shifted the numbers. Coal is no longer the cheapest source of new generation, and construction of new coal plants has stalled in recent years.

As regional markets gain popularity and electricity is bought and sold rapidly according to what costs the least, coal may remain unpopular, experts note.

Sierra Club recently commissioned a study that compared the cost of the company’s coal plants, like Wyoming’s Jim Bridger plant, to open market electricity and renewables. Wyoming’s plants did not fare well. PacifiCorp has maintained that those plants serve a crucial purpose on their systems and that the Sierra Club study took too narrow a view of the economics of coal.

Still, as West Coast states make good on their promise to shed coal power from their grids, Wyoming may pay the price of coal.

PacifiCorp vice president Jeff Larsen testified before the Wyoming Joint Corporations Committee in May that Oregon would soon pay off its share of the coal fleet and both Washington and California could do the same. That means the weight of keeping those coal units burning into the future will fall to other places served by the company, such as Wyoming.

“What is Wyoming’s view of coal risk, (of) keeping coal plants viable and operational?” he asked. “I think that’s an issue that many [state] regulators are struggling with because they have an obligation to look at least cost.”

Of course, it’s not only cost to Wyoming electricity users that concerned lawmakers. They’re also worried about jobs in coal towns like Kemmerer and Glenrock.

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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