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Mountain West power companies speed up retirement plans for coal plants

Smoke plumes rise from power plant smoke stacks with snowy open land beneath
Michael Smith
Several units at the Jim Bridger power plant in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, will be converted to natural gas by 2030, according to PacifiCorp.

The structural decline of the U.S. coal industry is accelerating, with big implications for the Mountain West.

Last week, one of the West's largest utilities announced plans to stop operating most of its coal-fired units in Wyoming by 2030. PacifiCorp, which serves about two million customers in six states, will also shut down units in Utah by 2032. It said it will replace that generation with natural gas, renewables and possibly small nuclear plants.

“We are engaged in a fundamental remaking of our regional generation and transmission network, which has served our customers so well for decades,” said Rick Link, a senior vice president at PacifiCorp. “As new sustainable generating resources come online, we will expand our transmission network to ensure the reliability and reasonable costs our customers expect and deserve.”

These moves follow other utilities around the region committing to coal phase-outs in the coming years, including Colorado's largest utility, Xcel Energy, and Idaho Power.

Seth Feaster, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said coal plant retirements in the Mountain West and across the country are largely driven by economics.

“It's about the cost to ratepayers to pay for energy. And whether that's a residential consumer or a big business consumer, they don't want to be paying a lot for power,” Feaster said.

Feaster used currently in-place plans and statements from utilities to conclude, in a report published this week, that the U.S. is on track to cut half of its coal-fired power capacity by 2026 compared to peak levels in 2011. He called that an “astounding” transition, and said communities that have historically depended on mining and other coal-based industries need to be prepared.

“There's a lot of places, understandably, that are economically dependent on coal, that want to try and preserve the status quo. Unfortunately, the economic forces driving the transition are much bigger than any individual town or any individual utility,” Feaster said. “In the same way that the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, the energy markets are changing.”

Exemplifying this transition, PacifiCorp said it plans to build more battery storage capacity to make renewable energy even cheaper and more reliable for customers. In 2022, renewable electricity generation surpassed coal and nuclear for the first time, according to new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Wind and solar in particular have seen rapid growth since 2010.

“As renewables expanded over time, they became much cheaper to build new power plants, especially compared with traditional fossil fuels,” said Tyler Hodge, an EIA economist.

The Biden administration recently announced investments in clean energy projects in communities affected by the transition away from coal. Wyoming’s legislature, meanwhile, has passed multiple laws trying to prolong the state’s coal industry despite its national downturn – including one that may result in electricity cost increases for customers.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey
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