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Kemmerer

A pickup parks along Kemmerer's central square on Feb. 11. While Kemmerer and its sister community Diamondville are quiet, out-of-the-way towns, the coal mine and PacifiCorp's Naughton Power Plant provide a solid base of dependable, good-paying jobs. But retirement of the facility is likely on the horizon, according to preliminary research conducted by the utility company last week. 

Accelerating the retirement of multiple Wyoming coal-fired power plants could lead to hefty cost savings, according to initial results revealed by the state’s largest utility last week.

Several draft power plans presented by PacifiCorp to stakeholders last week mapped out an ominous prognosis for the state’s coal economy.

The preliminary plans flared up concern over the fate of the state’s Jim Bridger and Naughton coal-fired power plants.

“The preferred portfolio will almost certainly include Naughton Units 1 and 2 closing,” said Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming who follows the regular PacifiCorp stakeholder meetings. “They haven’t shown a scenario where that doesn’t happen. The question is: Will we also be seeing plans for additional units at the Bridger station closing? That’s the bad news.”

Some portfolios presented at the meeting estimated cost savings around $500 million, if certain Wyoming coal-fired power plants retired early. But additional testing is still needed to provide a more definitive portfolio for the state’s power plant retirements, the company said.

For months, a team at PacifiCorp has been considering how potential changes to energy regulations, prices and technology could affect ratepayers’ electricity prices and the stability of the grid down the road. The data could also influence the company’s decision over coal-fleet retirements, a possibility that has fueled widespread alarm among Wyoming lawmakers.

But comprehensive results will not be formally announced by the company until October. Spencer Hall, a spokesman for PacifiCorp noted that the findings could change depending on how additional tests unfold in the coming weeks.

“It’s a continuing process with stakeholders that we’ve had going for more than a year at this point. We’ll have a preferred portfolio for the state and our service territory next month,” Hall told the Star-Tribune on Friday.

The results, outlined in an integrated resource plan, are collected every two years and updated annually. They could have big implications for Wyoming consumers relying on electric grids run by Rocky Mountain Power (a branch of PacifiCorp), not to mention the state’s miners employed at the company’s coal units.

Using the results, the company will craft a multi-year plan for its massive energy system with the goal of providing the lowest possible price for consumers and the most reliable grid. Striking that exact balance can be complicated. The company operates in six states, including Wyoming.

“It’s a hugely complex modeling process,” Godby said.

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PacifiCorp delayed the release of its final plan twice this year after finding miscalculations in reclamation cost results associated with the Jim Bridger facility, among other errors. But the company affirmed last week it was on track to release its full plan, forecasting the economic viability of PacifiCorp’s 72 generating facilities, on Oct. 18.

Conservation groups hailed the initial results outlining the likelihood of early coal-fired power plant retirements as a step in the right direction for Wyoming’s environment and ratepayers’ pockets.

“PacifiCorp’s own analysis shows that keeping aging coal plants running will mean higher electricity bills for Wyoming families and businesses,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter in a statement.

“Wyoming can no longer keep its head in the sand on the declining economics of coal power,” Wilbert added. “Now is the time to help coal-dependent communities in southwest Wyoming make an orderly transition away from coal rather than risking the sort of sudden job losses that we’ve seen in recent coal bankruptcies.”

Environmental organizations have also cited the company-led investigations that revealed high levels of contaminants in and around coal ash ponds at Wyoming’s power plants as reason to retire facilities sooner rather than later.

Though the initial results came as grim news for residents dependent on the state’s coal industry, the plans could offer a possible silver lining for the state in the form of thousands of megawatts in new wind energy development on an accelerated time frame, Godby said.

About one-third of the company’s owned generating capacity already comes from wind, hydro and geothermal energy sources.

“The good news is that they’re talking about a lot of investment in Wyoming in the near term,” Godby said, referring to tentative plans presented for wind, solar and storage investment throughout the state. “While these won’t be replacing all of those (coal) jobs, they definitely are going to have an impact in terms of building them.”

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