The Wyoming State Senate passed a bill on Feb. 7 aimed at shielding the state against economic damage caused by the coal industry’s decline.
Senate File 159 proposes that utilities should attempt to sell coal-fired plants in the state instead of retiring them. The bill contends that once the plants are sold they could keep burning coal until they reach the natural end of their life. In the meantime, they could sell energy back to the utility or could provide electricity for some other purpose or location.
The Casper Star-Tribune reported that despite pushback from the utility most concerned, PacifiCorp, a large electricity cooperative and a landowner group, the bill’s proponents say it is a step in the right direction as towns like Kemmerer, Glenrock and Rock Springs face uncertainty due to PacifiCorp’s consideration of closing some coal-fired power plants early — plants that burn Wyoming coal, employ Wyoming workers and were recently judged more expensive to burn than replace in many cases.
“I wanted something that could address the importance of the jobs associated with those plants in Wyoming’s communities,” said Dan Dockstader, (R-Afton) the bill’s sponsor. “This bill brings a possible solution for our Wyoming workers and the communities they call home.”
PacifiCorp — the parent company of Wyoming’s largest utility Rocky Mountain Power and owner of most of its coal plants and two coal mines — reported in December that early retirement of coal-fired units at plants like Jim Bridger, Naughton and Dave Johnston could save money.
Dockstader said that could be devastating to towns. The senator asked another lawmaker why the plants couldn’t just be sold instead.
Dockstader’s measure attempts to restrict a public utility’s ability to make a profit off power generation to replace a coal plant, such as the cost to build a wind farm, gas plant or a transmission line, unless the company has made what the bill defines in detail as a “good faith effort” to sell the coal plant.
Of course, these coal plants aren’t Wyoming’s to sell. They belong to utilities like Rocky Mountain Power, paid for by rate payers across the utility’s multi-state system over decades. Coal represents about half of PacifiCorp’s capacity to provide power.
The company has been under pressure to disclose the economics of its coal plants from environmental groups like the Sierra Club. The group and others have argued that the falling cost of new wind generation, cheap natural gas and selling electricity on the open market are all cheaper ways to procure power for rate payers.
The company has acknowledged this to be the case in some of its coal fleet, which still provides about half of the power to its customers.