Scott Palmer, manager of technical services at the Bridger Coal Company surface mine, chats with a colleague while standing next to a 2.2-mile-long conveyor belt that hauls coal from two nearby mines to the Jim Bridger Plant, visible in the background. PacifiCorp’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan calls for early retirement of one Jim Bridger unit in four years and another in 2028. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)
Wyoming’s largest electrical provider, PacifiCorp, wants to speed up its shift from coal-fired power to renewable energy.
But its plan for achieving that vision lacks proper analysis, transparency and modeling, and doesn’t adequately consider other alternatives, such as nuclear power or adding carbon capture to coal plants. That’s the conclusion of the Wyoming Public Service Commission, which just released the results of its investigation into the utility’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan.
The PSC’s findings won’t result in any immediate action regarding the utility, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming. Instead, the PSC will ask the company for more analysis and collaboration when developing future power scenarios and forecasts.
“There may be difficult decisions ahead, and the commission must be provided the best information possible, free of hypotheticals and perceived bias to make those decisions,” Commission Chairwoman Kara B. Fornstrom said. “The state has to have confidence in the analysis used to support the action plan.”
PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power’s IRP, released in the fall of 2019, is a rolling analysis for how to provide reliable, lowest-cost electricity for the next 20 years. Preferred alternatives called for retiring several Wyoming coal-fired units early and developing renewable generation and storage. Shortly after release of the plan, the PSC announced it would investigate the IRP — an unusual measure for the commission to take.
The investigation included testimony from ratepayer organizations, industry and environmental groups, as well as local governments. It also included public hearings in Rock Springs and Kemmerer, where plans to shutter coal-fired units will damage local economies.
The three-member PSC commission outlined its conclusions during a public “deliberation” hearing Thursday, which included criticisms that PacifiCorp didn’t seriously consider adding carbon capture schemes to its coal-fired power plants in Wyoming. Further, members of the PSC commission alleged PacifiCorp designed its modeling to bolster a foregone intention to shift away from coal.
“I recognize [PacifiCorp] is serving six states with differing philosophies about the future of energy,” Fornstrom said, reading from a prepared statement. “I don’t envy them. However, I hope that it is clear that Wyoming wants its voice to be heard — the same amount of effort expended by the company to pursue Wyoming directives as to other states.”
The PSC will schedule a conference with PacifiCorp and stakeholders to suggest additional measures and methods in developing the utility’s next IRP; its 2021 planning effort is already underway. The commission will also review its control over plant retirements and other major changes to electric utility systems.
Perhaps the most significant determination by the PSC this week is that it can’t base its decisions on job losses and other socioeconomic implications of major utility actions. Taking on those issues requires a coordinated effort between PacifiCorp and a full network of government agencies, Fornstrom said.
“In my view, outside of general awareness, the commission’s role is limited to appropriate cost-recovery related to these plans,” Fornstrom said. “Any attempt at mitigation is a system responsibility to be shared by all PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power states and its shareholders. [PacifiCorp] has committed to developing these plans and I have urged the company to involve the appropriate agencies and local officials in an empathetic and cooperative manner.”
Wyoming, PacifiCorp clash on coal
PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power — the state’s largest utility — published its most recent IRP last year. It detailed a preferred option that includes closing two of four units at the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs by 2029, closing the Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock by 2027 and closing two units at the Naughton plant near Kemmerer in 2026. The coal units set for early retirement in Wyoming are several decades old, losing…