Lawmakers try new ways to block coal plant closures

Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Dry Fork Station north of Gillette was one of the last coal-fired power plants built in the U.S., commencing operations in 2011. The $1.35 billion power plant has a generating capacity of 385 megawatts. (Dustin Bleizeffer).
Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Dry Fork Station north of Gillette was one of the last coal-fired power plants built in the U.S., commencing operations in 2011. The $1.35 billion power plant has a generating capacity of 385 megawatts. (Dustin Bleizeffer).

By WyoFile

Wyoming lawmakers are considering a suite of bills to help keep aging coal-fired power plants in the state in operation, including one measure that would allow the state to possibly take over ownership of a coal plant.

House Bill 259 – Public utilities-regulatory amendments would allow “the Wyoming Energy Authority, any other instrumentality of the state, a cooperative electric utility or a municipal utility” to purchase a coal-fired power plant otherwise slated for early retirement.

HB 259, and several other legislative measures, would expand the state’s authority to deny proposed coal unit retirements, force the sale of a coal unit to keep it running and require more stringent grid reliability analysis by utilities wishing to retire coal plants or install renewable energy generation. HB 248 – Electricity production standard, would require that power served to Wyoming customers meet a minimum portfolio standard of 95%, ramping up to 100%, coming from fossil fuels, nuclear, geothermal and hydrogen power sources.

“We basically mandate the grid can’t go down,” Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), told fellow members of the House Minerals Business and Economic Development Committee on Monday. Zwonitzer is sponsor of HB 259 and HB 258 – Public utilities-reliability and transparency requirements. “So we’re saying you have to have reliable power at all times. The No. 1 source of reliable, dispatchable power is Wyoming coal.”

In draft legislation, intermittent power such as solar and wind do not meet the definition of reliable, dispatchable power.

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Language in the suite of proposed coal power bills, Zwonitzer said, allows for non-fossil fuel sources of generation, but with strict assurances that other power generation sources — namely solar and wind — will not pose a threat to power reliability or costs to Wyoming ratepayers.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, stands and claps following an address by Chief Justice Michael Davis during the 66th Wyoming Legislature Tuesday, March 2, 2021, from the Senate chamber. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, stands and claps following an address by Chief Justice Michael Davis during the 66th Wyoming Legislature Tuesday, March 2, 2021, from the Senate chamber. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

To enforce myriad new measures in the suite of legislation, non-compliance in some instances could result in revocation of a public utility’s “certificate of convenience and necessity” — essentially, authorization to serve power to Wyoming customers. Such an action might have “unworkable,” consequences for the state Wyoming Public Service Commission Chairman Chris Petrie told lawmakers Monday.

Critics of the sweeping new mandates say the premise of keeping aging coal-fired power units online while increasing the state’s reliance on fossil fuel power generation for the sake of achieving the lowest-cost most-reliable electricity is based on false assumptions. Relying more, not less, on coal will only put Wyoming ratepayers at risk of higher costs and less reliable power, they say.

More than a decade of advancing policies, renewable energy technology advances and market forces beyond Wyoming’s control make aging coal-fired power more of a risk to Wyoming ratepayers, said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council. She noted Wyoming’s largest public utilities also operate in several other states, which means Wyoming has limited authority to impose a regulatory regime to ensure it is predominantly powered by coal well into the future.

“This kind of shotgun legislation is really too fast and too much, and it needs a lot more thought and deliberation,” Anderson told WyoFile. “Legislators are coming from a place where they just really believe these coal plants are necessary for Wyoming, and if that is what you believe, it’s really easy to ignore the problems with these bills.”

Wyoming is already primarily served by coal-fired power generation, and it relies on other states in the western power grid to purchase Wyoming-based coal-fired power. As those states continue to rely less on coal, the state would be taking a huge risk on behalf of Wyoming ratepayers if it were to mandate coal as its primary source of power generation, Anderson said.

Rocky Mountain Power Vice President of Government Affairs Jon Cox told lawmakers Monday that affordable and reliable power has always been a primary driver for the public utility. RMP and its parent company, PacifiCorp, prioritize reliability and affordability in plans to gradually shift from coal to more renewable power sources, he said.

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“The issue of reliability is at the core of what our business is, and we should be talking about it,” Cox said. “I would welcome the conversation on ways that we can improve our reliability rate today in the state of Wyoming, which is 99.98%, not 100%.”

Mary Throne in 2015, at the time the House Minority Floor Leader (D-Cheyenne).
Mary Throne in 2015, at the time the House Minority Floor Leader (D-Cheyenne).

Wyoming Public Service Commissioner Mary Throne asked lawmakers to consider proposed amendments to draft bill language to allow utilities to retire coal plants if necessary to remain in compliance with federal clean air standards. Sometimes replacing an aging coal unit — some in Wyoming have been in operation for 50 years — is a cheaper alternative than adding emission-scrubbing technologies, she said.

Public comment at Monday’s Minerals Committee hearing was limited to representatives of electric utilities for a total of about 15 minutes.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) said he would reserve more time for public comment when the Minerals Committee resumes discussion on the bills Wednesday.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.