CASPER — A bill intended to slow the closure of Wyoming coal-fired power plants appears poised to clear the Legislature, after securing two votes in the Senate last week. House Bill 166 will undergo a final vote, likely early this week. It already passed the House on March 22.
If passed into law, the bill will require public utilities to take additional steps before they can retire aging coal or natural gas plants in the state.
Critics of the bill worry it will hike up electricity costs for Wyoming ratepayers. The Public Service Commission — the state agency charged with regulating public utilities — would not have the authority to OK fossil fuel plant closures unless a plant owner can provide a sufficient level of proof in support of the retirement.
“It gives the (Public Service Commission) a couple more tools in the toolbox or arrows in the quiver,” Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said.
Before bringing the bill to the Senate floor, lawmakers proposed several amendments. That included adopting language from another bill also aimed at safeguarding Wyoming’s coal resources to keep electricity supplies reliable, House Bill 155. The amendment will make state regulators weigh the potential effect a coal or natural gas plant closure could have on power reliability for Wyomingites.
“Before authorizing or approving the retirement of an electric generation facility, (...) the commission shall consider the effect on available reliable, dispatchable electricity to Wyoming customers and the impact that any shortage of available energy nationwide may have on Wyoming customers,” according to the bill sent to the floor.
The other bill, House Bill 155, was then tabled. Wyoming’s governor backed both bills, saying they would help the state’s effort to expand carbon capture, sequestration and utilization, or CCUS.
“We share your frustrations that public utilities have not committed to CCUS as part of their (resource plans),” said Randall Luthi, chief energy adviser for Gov. Mark Gordon. He added both proposals could help advance the technological developments.
“It’s the governor’s ultimate goal to keep (carbon capture) moving forward and that our electric grid remains reliable and provides 24-hour dispatchable power,” he said.
But to retired consumer advocate Denise Parrish, state regulators are already burdened with multiple ongoing rule-making efforts related to coal legislation passed in 2019 and 2020; the bills, moreover, could hike up electricity rates for Wyomingites, she concluded.
“The expertise of the (Public Service Commission) and others would be better spent looking at the individual facts and circumstances of each utility’s investment decisions, taking into account both reliability and cost,” explained Parrish, who previously worked for Wyoming’s Office of Consumer Advocate. “Keeping today’s investments intact may be more costly to customers without adding any more reliability to the system.” Throughout the 2021 general session, state lawmakers have scrambled to draft more than a half dozen bills to help Wyoming’s coal sector stay afloat.
In addition to House Bill 166, lawmakers have passed a bill to provide the governor with $1.2 million to sue other states interfering with Wyoming’s coal industry.
Another bill requiring state regulators to weigh reliability and socioeconomic consequences before rendering decisions also passed the Legislature.
For more than three decades, Wyoming has led the nation in coal production, contributing to about 40% of the total supply in the country. But competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy has gradually shoved coal out of its top spot in electricity markets.
The state still heavily relies on revenue generated from coal production and has yet to find other sufficient cash streams to replace it. Declining demand for coal in recent years has translated into less and less money to cover Wyoming’s government and essential public services.
Proponents of the package of coal legislation say they want to defend Wyoming’s coal fleet to ensure the electricity grid remains reliable for years to come.
Many of the proposed bills seek to ensure Wyoming’s power grid maintains a source of continuously available electricity supply, like coal, especially as companies invest more in renewable energy.
But critics, like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, have said privileging coal at the expense of other dependable power sources will simply come at the expense of the state’s ratepayers — hiking up electricity rates and costs.
During a committee hearing on House Bill 166 — the bill creating a presumption against fossil fuel closures — the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a group representing landowners, outlined its opposition to the bill.
“We think (House Bill 166) is too broad in its current form with too many vague and problematic definitions that will just make it incredibly difficult for the PSC and utilities to implement,” said Shannon Anderson, staff lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“We believe the bill will change the way utilities in our state are regulated in very significant ways, and those changes will be passed along in the form of cost and risk to utility customers,” she continued. “We believe the bill is duplicative and conflicting with existing utility requirements for cost and reliability for service.”