PacifiCorp details early Bridger, Naughton coal closures - Casper, WY Oil City News
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PacifiCorp details early Bridger, Naughton coal closures

Spencer Neria operates controls for feeder belts at the Naughton Plant. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

October 3, 2019 by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

In the latest blow to Wyoming’s coal industry, PacifiCorp today unveiled early retirement plans for multiple coal-fired electrical generating units in the region, including at the state’s Jim Bridger and Naughton plants.

The utility’s draft 2019 Integrated Resource Plan calls for retirement of two Naughton coal units within six years, early retirement of one Jim Bridger unit in four years and another in 2028 — nine years from now. All four units at the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock are set to close by 2027 as previously anticipated.

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The units’ “useful lives” extend years — and in some cases even more than a decade — beyond the new retirement dates. But the 1.9-million-customer utility would retire the identified units early as it juggles costs and reliability factors, customer preferences and new sources of renewable energy across six states, according to a company statement.

PacifiCorp has 24 coal units in the West. Sixteen would retire by 2030 and another four by 2038. The retirements will reduce coal-fueled generation capacity by nearly 2,800 megawatts in 11 years and by nearly 4,500 megawatts in 19 years.

The draft 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, an update of the 2017 version, may provide a bit of solace to communities in southwest Wyoming near the Naughton and Jim Bridger plants, a local official said. That’s because the proposal is less aggressive in terms of early coal-unit closures than PacifiCorp’s most cost-conscious option, which was also considered. That plan would have saved consumers $599 million.

PacifiCorp’s now-preferred alternative would see one Naughton unit converted to run on natural gas and the remaining two of Jim Bridger’s four units operating through 2037. That’s 12 years longer than the most cost-saving alternative had proposed.

Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo found some relief in the preferred alternative Wednesday after PacifiCorp briefed him and other regional officials on the pending announcement, Kaumo told WyoFile.

“All in all, it was much more positive than we had expected,” Kaumo said in an interview. “It made much more sense” compared to other alternatives.

“It at least gives us some time to consider some options.” 

Smoke stacks at three of the four Jim Bridger Plant coal-fired electrical generating units. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

‘Sophisticated economic and operational models’ 

PacifiCorp today started a two-day hearing in Portland and Salt Lake City explaining the decision and alternatives to stakeholders. The plan is set to be submitted to regulators by Oct. 18.

PacifiCorp will take public comments at the meetings under advisement, company spokesman David Eskelsen told WyoFile. It’s likely the company won’t make substantial changes to the proposed alternative when the final plan is submitted to six state regulatory agencies, he said.

“The company’s preferred portfolio … as articulated is generally the same one that goes into the plan itself,” he said. PacifiCorp’s analyses use “fairly sophisticated economic and operational models,” he said.

In announcing the preferred alternative in a statement today, the utility wrote that the proposal calls for “increases in lower-cost wind, solar and storage to manage phased coal transition.” About 7,000 megawatts of new renewables and battery storage are part of the program through 2025.

For comparison, Jim Bridger can produce up to 2,441 megawatts, although output may be curtailed by various factors, including laws and regulations that seek to protect health and the environment.Naughton’s three units can produce 832 megawatts, according to SourceWatch, an arm of the Center for Media and Democracy.

Located at Point of Rocks just outside Rock Springs, the Jim Bridger Plant has four units fed by two associated PacifiCorp mines and another nearby coal supplier. The three Naughton Plant units — one is already shut down — are located outside Kemmerer and are fed by the Kemmerer Mine.

The Jim Bridger plant and associated coal mines employee some 800 people and can produce enough electricity to power 1.76 million homes, according to WyoFile calculations. It burns up to 9 million tons of coal per year.

Naughton, commissioned in 1963, employs approximately 126 workers, down about 25% through attrition over the past five years, Plant Managing Director Rodger Holt has said.

The plan is “a phased and well-managed coal transition that minimizes impacts to our thermal operations workforce and communities,” PacifiCorp Vice President Rick Link said in a statement. “This plan reflects the ongoing cost pressure on coal as wind generation, solar generation and storage have emerged as low-cost resource options for our customers.”

Wyoming’s beleaguered energy communities are among the utility’s considerations, Chad Teply, another PacifiCorp vice president, said in a statement. “We are mindful that these resource decisions impact our thermal operations employees, their families and communities,” the statement read. “Our top priority is making certain our employees and communities remain informed about the changes ahead and that we work in concert with everyone involved to develop plans that help them transition through this time of change.”

Seeking new renewables 

Although many will focus on the early coal plant retirements, the proposed portfolio “is much more than that,” Eskelsen said.

In addition to addressing how the company expects to serve customers’ needs over the planning horizon, it examines new generation resources. Those include more than 3,500 megawatts of new wind generation by 2025 and more than 4,600 megawatts of new wind generation by 2038.

In that mix are 1,920 megawatts of new wind generation the company will get from Wyoming by 2024.

The company anticipates about 3,000 megawatts of new solar generation by 2025, its statement said, including through customer-generated systems.

The plan includes “a robust battery discussion,” Eskelsen said, referring to one of the principal issues dogging renewable energy. Wind and solar energy draw criticism for their sporadic production.

The disparity between when renewable power is generated and residential power is used is sometimes characterized in a graph known as the duck curve. The wildly fluctuating line resembles the swayback profile of a waterfowl.

“The 2019 draft resource plan identifies battery storage as part of a least-cost portfolio for the first time,” PacifiCorp said in its statement. “The plan adds nearly 1,400 [megawatts] of stand-alone storage resources starting in 2028.”

PacifiCorp’s plan seeks 600 megawatts of battery storage by 2025, nearly 1,400 MW of stand-alone storage starting in 2028 and more than 2,800 megawatts by 2038.

The utility also addresses demand-side management that seeks to cajole users, one way or another, to even out daily imbalances in power usage.

The IRP anticipates needs for the next 20 years, but it is updated every two years.

PacifiCorp also will continue with construction of the 400-mile Gateway South transmission line connecting southeastern Wyoming and northern Utah and the 140-mile Gateway West line.

“We can extend the reach and flexibility of the grid so more low-cost energy can be delivered to our customers,” Teply said in the statement.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.