Jim Bridger Plant power plant

Sweetwater County’s Jim Bridger Plant. Courtesy

CASPER – The days of Wyoming’s coal-fired power plants are numbered.

A draft resource plan unveiled Thursday by the state’s largest utility company forecast a somber future for PacifiCorp’s two dozen coal units pumping out electricity across the nation. The company will likely retire two-thirds of its coal fleet by 2030, including units at Naughton in Kemmerer, Jim Bridger near Rock Springs and Dave Johnston in Glenrock.

To save ratepayers significant costs, 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.

Naughton’s unit 3 retired this year, but will transition to processing natural gas in 2020.

The anticipated retirement date of 2027 for Dave Johnston’s units will remain the same under the new preferred portfolio.

For Wyoming, the epicenter of the country’s coal production, the transition to renewable energy could have colossal consequences for its coal-dependent communities.

Though the company said it hopes to retrain and reemploy as many workers as it can, PacifiCorp’s management team acknowledged the changes come with both benefits and losses.

“Some of our coal fleets and coal units are located in communities that have literally been built around those coal resources, so as we’ve been engaged with stakeholders, employees and those communities over the past year, we have continued to set forth plans that will help us get to our next major milestones on that transition,” said Chad Teply, vice president of resource development and construction.

“Most of the detail has yet to be worked out with local leadership,” Teply told the Star-Tribune.

Gov. Mark Gordon called the early closures a “blow to the people of Wyoming,” and said the decisions made in the resource plan “personally disappointed” him.

“The finalization of their IRP allows us to move into further analysis of the underlying assumptions that led to this announcement,” he said Thursday in a statement.

“My focus now is on the workers and the communities that will be affected by this announcement,” he added. “The state will continue to work cooperatively with local and federal partners on efforts to strengthen and diversify the economies of those impacted communities.”

But as the coal industry starts to sunset in the state, PacifiCorp’s development of wind energy capacity will only accelerate, according to the proposed 2019 preferred portfolio.

The company already has launched construction of more than 1,500 megawatts of new wind projects. It also will implement an additional 1,920 megawatts of wind generation by 2024 throughout the state.

PacifiCorp (the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power) will unveil its final integrated resource plan on Oct. 18.

The company aims to provide the lowest possible price for consumers and the most reliable energy grid.

But striking that balance can be complicated. For 16 months, a team at PacifiCorp has been considering how potential changes to energy regulations, prices and technology could affect ratepayers’ prices and the stability of the grid down the road. The results help dictate when the company will retire its coal-fired power plants.

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.

“The bottom line is there are significant cost savings (in the coal unit retirements),” said Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming. “In an IRP, the two things they need to focus on is cost to the ratepayers and reliability of the system. So what they determined was these four coal units can be closed with significant savings to the public and make basically no difference to system reliability.”

But the possibility of accelerated coal-fired power plant retirements has fueled widespread alarm among Wyoming lawmakers.

Earlier this year, Wyoming lawmakers passed a bill, Senate File 159, requiring utility companies, including PacifiCorp, to attempt to sell declining coal plants before they retire.

Though the Wyoming Public Service Commission has yet to finalize the exact rules under the new law, PacifiCorp said Thursday it intends to comply, placing units on the market roughly two years before a planned retirement, beginning with Jim Bridger’s unit 1 in 2023.

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