Lawmakers in Wyoming consider bills to protect coal plants from early retirement

March 9, 2021

In the wake of rolling blackouts in Texas brought on by extreme weather conditions in February, the issue of reliable, baseload power has gained additional attention from lawmakers throughout the United States.

In Wyoming, the state that produces the majority of the coal used by the United States, lawmakers are considering a number of bills that could help keep aging coal-fired power plants in the state in operation while providing reliant power to the state.

One measure being considered could 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, Wyo File reported.

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 percent, ramping up to 100 percent, 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.

The National Mining Association (NMW) recently released polling that shows seven in 10 voters – including a majority of Democrats,

Republicans and Independents – support maintaining baseload, on-demand power plants, such as coal plants, to support the reliable supply of electricity. The polling was conducted by Morning Consult, Feb. 25-27, 2021, of 1,980 registered voters and carries a +/-2 percent margin of error.

“Questions remain about how we can safeguard against a repeat of the Texas grid crisis but several certainties have emerged,” said Rich Nolan, NMA President and CEO. “No fuel is immune to impacts from extreme weather but fuel diversity helps guard against catastrophic failures.

Incentivizing fuel sources that can be stored on-site at power plants and dispatched whenever needed is an important insurance policy for a grid that will be increasingly based on variable power in the future.”

Language in the suite of proposed coal power bills for Wyoming 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.

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.

In just the last few years, Texas has lost roughly 5GW of critically important coal capacity through early retirements. The recent crisis exposes why a thoughtful, informed transition that better values fuel diversity and the fuel security provided by coal generation is so important.

Overreliance on one dispatchable fuel is an increasingly concerning vulnerability policymakers and regulators must address. As the International Energy Agency found in its analysis of the crisis, “The decline in natural gas supplies to the ERCOT market area effectively led to the shut-in of an estimated 31 GW gas-fired power generation capacity on 15 February and was the main reason for the capacity shortfall.”

 

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