Gov. Mark Gordon said he was “deeply concerned” Friday by Rocky Mountain Power’s serious consideration of shuttering some coal-fired power plant units in Wyoming within four years.
The utility — part of PacifiCorp — released a presentation earlier this week confirming that closing nine coal-fired units in Colorado and Wyoming, including Jim Bridger, Naughton and Dave Johnston, by 2023 would save the company and its customers $12 million.
Gordon was critical of the company’s direction in a statement Friday, noting the trickle-down effect of coal plant closures in the Cowboy State. The governor said he was prepared to advocate for the plants’ continued operation.
“This has significant impacts on all of Wyoming and revenue for schools and other services we all depend on,” he said “It also means a loss of jobs and changing people’s lives.”
Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the country, and the coal plant closures considered by Rocky Mountain Power are part of a larger story of coal’s decline in a competitive power market. The rock went from providing half of the country’s power 15 years ago to about 30 percent today.
But, closures are also local crises in small town Wyoming, as plants are both large employers and taxpayers.
Earlier this year the Kemmerer mine — already facing the bankruptcy of its owner due to a challenged coal market — lost a large chunk of its annual demand when Rocky Mountain Power closed one of the coal-fired units at the Naughton plant.
The company closed the unit due to a federal regulation that would have been more costly to comply with than the older unit was worth.
In response to the closure of the Naughton unit and the uncertainty of the Kemmerer mine, state lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would obligate large utilities like Rocky Mountain Power to search for a buyer before closing a coal plant.
That obligation is dependent on the buyer meeting a fairly high bar to be set by the Wyoming Public Service Commission.
In his statement Friday, Gordon noted his desire for a technological approach to deal with carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a stance that has been promoted by Sen. John Barrasso in recent statements as well as other prominent Wyoming leaders, such as Gordon’s predecessor, former Gov. Matt Mead.
The early closure of coal plants is a missed opportunity to face climate change while maintaining a diversified energy portfolio through advancing technology, Gordon said in his statement. The comments diverged from Mead, who was often cautious to avoid affirming man-made climate change as a reality. Gordon told the Star-Tribune during his campaign that he had doubts about the veracity of man-made climate change.
“The potential for early retirement of some coal-fired power plants means we drift further away from finding solutions for reducing carbon emissions at all coal-fired power plants, those plants in Wyoming and across the globe,” Gordon said. “I will advocate for a positive path where this utility and others are part of developing solutions rather than destroying communities and delaying progress.”
Though climate concerns were once the most pressing worry for Wyoming coal — and a hallmark of Wyoming’s bitter dispute with the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency over proposed coal cutting regulations, market pressures have dramatically increased in the years since the infamous Clean Power Plan — which the Trump administration has proposed to dismantle — was introduced.
Wyoming’s coal industry has lost more than a quarter of its annual production since 2012 due to the increasing use of natural gas to power the country, as well as the early retirement of older coal plants and the growing renewable sector.
With the change in pressure on the coal industry, environmental groups have pivoted their advocacy as well, focusing in more recent years on the economics of coal-fired power, which is rapidly being outpaced by other options.
Rocky Mountain Power has been pressured by environmental groups to say publicly that its coal fleet was often more expensive than wind or purchasing power on the open market.
The company did admit that in part through an economics of coal study in December, but noted that the reliability of the company’s energy system also had to be considered given that coal plants provide large amounts of baseline power for the company’s customers from Wyoming to Washington.
The presentation that shook Gordon and encouraged environmental groups confirmed that reliability would not be greatly affected and money would be saved.
PacifiCorp’s calculations are not unique in the power sector, as many plants have announced retirements in recent years due to the price savings of pivoting to other energy sources.
Those closures have wreaked havoc on Wyoming’s coal sector and clouded the outlook for the industry — which provides a tremendous amount of the state’s funding every year.
Environmental groups say the decline of coal’s economic strength is a positive for public health and note that Rocky Mountain Power is coming to grips with that reality.
“This just adds to all the numbers we’re seeing across the country that show clean energy is a far better deal than coal,” Christopher Thomas, Sierra Club campaign representative, said in a statement Thursday. “Now is the time for Rocky Mountain Power to seriously look at helping coal communities prepare for a coal-free future.”
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner