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Wyoming Public Service Commission delays investigation into state's largest utility
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Wyoming Public Service Commission delays investigation into state's largest utility

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Naughton Power Plant

Steam rises from the Naughton Plant on May 2, 2014, in Kemmerer. The Public Service Commission delayed public deliberations over its investigation into PacifiCorp's integrated resource plan until next month after a dispute over evidence.

The Wyoming Public Service Commission moved to delay finalizing its investigation into the state’s largest utility on Tuesday, after an energy company made an eleventh-hour request to include additional evidence in the case.

Commissioners had initially scheduled public deliberations on its investigation into PacifiCorp for Tuesday afternoon but ultimately delayed the proceeding. The commission determined it needed additional time to weigh the merits and legality of introducing additional evidence, which in this case involved a study on the potential benefits of retrofitting coal-fired power plants with carbon capture.

Heated discussion dominated an impromptu hearing held at 8 a.m. Tuesday, as parties argued for and against the inclusion of additional evidence. The debate captured the very issue arresting the state’s attention: whether Wyoming should continue investing in its coal industry or support a transition to a new energy economy.

The regulatory body launched its investigation into PacifiCorp on Nov. 13, following the release of the company’s integrated resource plan. The plan essentially mapped out the company’s energy strategy for the coming decades.

PacifiCorp’s 2019 plan would retire several coal plants early to save ratepayers money. The plan did not sit well with most Wyoming lawmakers and industry groups. Over the course of several months, the commission held multiple technical conferences and hearings to investigate the integrity of the plan.

But as the investigation was drawing to a close, Glenrock Energy, a company party to the case, filed a motion to introduce additional evidence in the form of a study on Sept. 2.

Initiated by Gov. Mark Gordon, the study was published last week by the U.S. Department of Energy. In a stinging rebuke of PacifiCorp’s plan, the study concluded equipping coal plants with carbon capture was a better option. In short, extending the lives of facilities this way would reduce emissions, cut ratepayers’ costs and sustain jobs in the state, the study concluded.

Though the study was lauded by the governor’s office and the coal industry, several economists, attorneys and conservationists have characterized its findings as misleading and incomplete.

Glenrock Energy has long lobbied in support of extending the operation of coal plants. It urged commissioners to consider the recently published study before issuing the investigation’s conclusions.

“We can’t imagine anything more relevant or instructive to the commission for purposes of the issues that Glenrock (Energy) has raised in this matter,” said Dale Cottam, an attorney representing Glenrock Energy.

“Proceedings like this one — this investigation (by) the commission — they are very, very important. They don’t happen very often,” he added. “... Our suggestion to the commission is that to conclude this investigation, without admitting the study into the record would mean that the commission could be missing out on an important opportunity to achieve a complete record in this matter.”

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The Northern Laramie Range Alliance, a party in the case, also submitted a similar motion to include the study. But opponents to the motions, including PacifiCorp, cited several due process concerns in the move.

Jacob McDermot, an attorney representing PacifiCorp, called the motion “wildly unfair,” given the lack of time to review and substantively respond to the late filing.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, joined the utility in its opposition to the admittance of the study.

“We urge the commission to put politics aside and focus on the law and legal standards that are designed to ensure due process in the judicial proceedings,” Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney representing the group, said during testimony before the commission. “This is not about the substance of the study. It’s about the process and whether the study should be admitted as evidence for a hearing that occurred six weeks ago. The motion should be denied.”

Where this all began

The profitability of thermal coal has contracted in recent years, as increased competition from natural gas and renewables has slowly squeezed demand for coal out of the energy market. In response, utilities have started taking a hard look at the economics of keeping the aging facilities open.

The possibility of accelerated coal-fired power plant retirements has fueled widespread alarm throughout the state. That fear was especially stoked after the state’s leading utility announced plans to gradually divest from some of its coal plants.

A team at PacifiCorp spent approximately 16 months researching how potential shifts in energy regulations, prices and technology could affect ratepayers’ prices and the stability of the grid down the road when writing its 2019 integrated resource plan. The goal was to determine the least-cost, least-risk portfolio of resources to provide safe, reliable electric service to ratepayers. Results from advanced modeling revealed the company would need to transition away from coal-fired power plants in order to save ratepayers substantial costs. But Wyoming lawmakers and industry leaders have seen it as an attack on Wyoming’s robust coal industry.

Under the utility’s plan, two-thirds of its national coal fleet will be retired by 2030, including units at Naughton in Kemmerer, Jim Bridger near Rock Springs and Dave Johnston in Glenrock. PacifiCorp will retire Jim Bridger’s unit 1 in 2023, four years earlier than the company once projected. Another unit at Jim Bridger will retire in 2028, nine years early. In addition, Naughton’s units 1 and 2 will shutter in 2025. Dave Johnston units 1-4 would be retired by 2027.

When a utility files an integrated resource plan, the commission typically accepts it after scrutinizing it during a public comment period. But the commission can also instigate an investigation and hold a contested case proceeding.

On Tuesday, Chris Petrie, chief counsel at the Public Service Commission, said the regulatory body would need more time to deliberate the late motions and make a final determination on whether the company can include new evidence in the investigation by the end of day Wednesday.

Public deliberations will be rescheduled for early October.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry 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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