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The high stakes of Wyoming’s electric power future

PacifiCorp’s Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant just outside Glenrock (Dustin Bleizeffer)

Column by Ronn Smith, WyoFile

PacifiCorp recently released its 2021 Integrated Resource Plan, which forecasts future demand for power in the region and the sources of electrical energy PacifiCorp has determined will be necessary to meet this demand most efficiently and reliably. The Wyoming Public Service Commission has solicited public comments leading up to its review of the IRP; the deadline for comments is Friday, Feb. 11.

The two-volume IRP is a formidable document, with 850 pages of high-level analysis and supporting data. While the average ratepayer cannot be expected to wade through this comprehensive document, it nonetheless discloses potential generating resources that should command the attention of Rocky Mountain Power’s 142,000 Wyoming customers and all other individuals concerned about the energy future of Wyoming.

The good

The preferred portfolio includes a slight increase in wind generation and a dramatic increase in battery storage. It also suggests an 88% reduction in overall carbon dioxide emissions over the 20-year planning period by adding renewable sources of energy and retiring virtually all the utility’s coal assets by 2050.

PacifiCorp’s analysis suggests that retrofitting coal-burning power units with carbon capture sequestration and utilization technologies is cost prohibitive. It solicited proposals from potential CCUS suppliers, and only one respondent expressed intent to complete a front-end engineering design study. The IRP appropriately states that capital cost, transportation infrastructure, the lack of available federal funding and other factors still contribute to the risk and uncertainty of CCUS.

The bad

Unfortunately, the IRP leaves open a contingency plan to include CCUS at the Dave Johnston power plant, pending regulatory developments and the review of CCUS proposals. But the downfalls of coal-based CCUS have been sufficiently demonstrated.

Boundary Dam and Petra Nova, the only utility-scale coal-plant CCUS retrofit projects in North America, both incurred higher costs and achieved lower performance than originally advertised. In April of 2020 Petra Nova in Houston shut down with the intent to restart on a seasonal basis. A year later the company announced the plant would be mothballed indefinitely.

Boundary Dam unit 3, in Saskatchewan, has gained operating experience for eight years, yet the plant struggled with mechanical failures in 2021 and achieved only 37% CO2 capture efficiency. Over its entire life, the plant has averaged 67% capture efficiency, compared to the target rate of 90%. SaskPower’s decision to scrap plans to retrofit units 4 and 5 with CCUS speaks for itself.

Most of SaskPower’s problems are inherent to coal plants and will not go away with more experimentation. The Wyoming Energy Authority recently granted three CCUS research funding requests (out of 17 proposals), none of which involve coal. The award stated, “these three proposals illustrated that their projects are at a scale sufficient to demonstrate commercial viability.”

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