ROCK SPRINGS — The Wyoming Public Service Commission came to town Wednesday to hear public comment on Rocky Mountain Power’s 2019 integrated resource plan (IRP) that proposes the early closure of several coal-fired plant units in southwest Wyoming.
The IRP released by PacifiCorp in October includes a preferred portfolio and action plan detailing the company’s intentions to move toward wind, solar and battery resources, with the early retirement of units at Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs and the Naughton Plant near Kemmerer.
In November, Wyoming’s Public Service Commission issued an order to initiate an investigation to evaluate the IRP, preferred portfolio and action plan. In its order, the commission said, “Any decision to retire coal-fired generation units prior to the end of their established depreciable lives may adversely impact the cost and reliability of service provided to RMP’s Wyoming customers while producing significant negative economic impacts. These impacts, individually and collectively, must be thoroughly evaluated to ensure implementation of the preferred portfolio is consistent with the public interest.”
As part of the investigation process, the commission conducted two public comment hearings in southwest Wyoming: one in Rock Springs on Wednesday, Jan. 29, and one in Kemmerer on Tuesday, Jan. 28. A public evidentiary hearing is scheduled May 5-6 in the commission’s hearing room in Cheyenne. It will be broadcast via live stream on the PSC website. Also, written public comments will be accepted through April 15.
The Rock Springs City Council Chamber was filled with people Wednesday at the beginning of the three-hour PSC hearing. Rick Link, PacifiCorp’s vice president of resource planning and acquisitions, kicked off the meeting with introductory remarks outlining the IRP process. He said the company’s IRP contains a 20-year forecast horizon. The plan considers types of resources that should be added to the PacifiCorp system in order to maintain reliable service at a reasonable cost. Link said it is not intended to increase the company’s profits, but considers a rate perspective. It will be updated on a two-year cycle and will consider changes in the planning environment. Modifications will include consideration of such things as state/federal law, load forecast, market prices, and resource procurement costs.
Link said IRP formulation includes a nine-month public process that includes opportunities for input from stakeholders and anyone else wanting to participate. The next steps involve developing assumptions, modeling and analysis. Once the company comes up with the IRP, it is filed with state commissions and goes through regulatory review. The public input process for the 2019 IRP was initiated in 2018 and included 18 public input meetings. Link said that more than 120 resource portfolios are analyzed with thousands of models and simulations to evaluate costs, risks and reliability. Updates and corrections are made throughout the modeling process. As an example, Link said that an issue with how data was being entered into models of Jim Bridger mine costs had to be fixed to get a more accurate count.
As part of the process, coal studies were done to explore whether customers in the six states served might benefit from the early retirement of coal units in PacifiCorp’s system. The Public Utility Commission of Oregon established requirements for a unit-by-unit retirement study with a limited scope to inform any further analysis in the 2019 IRP. It was reviewed with stakeholders at a June 2018 public input meeting, Link said. PacifiCorp expanded the scope to ensure that the full cost to maintain system reliability in any given retirement scenario was being accounted for, Link said. The findings informed the broader portfolio development process for the 2019 IRP.
Rocky Mountain Power’s plans include the retirement of all of Jim Bridger Power Plant’s coal-fired units by 2037. Under the preferred portfolio of PacifiCorp’s integrated resource plan, Jim Bridger Unit 1 will close by the end of December 2023, Unit 2 will close by 2028 and Units 3 and 4 will operate through 2037. PacifiCorp also plans to retire Naughton Units 1 and 2 near Kemmerer by the end of December 2025.
The company plans to rely more on solar and wind power. Through the end of 2023, the preferred portfolio includes 1,821 MW of new solar and 1,989 MW of new wind (not contracted or under construction). The preferred portfolio also includes battery storage resources for the first time.
Sweetwater County Commissioner Wally Johnson was the first person to comment at Wednesday’s hearing. He began by noting that he previously worked for PacificCorp entities including the Bridger Coal Company. Johnson said the company’s plans will have a significant impact on the area.
“It is the company’s prerogative to do what they want, but the company doesn’t seem to care how it affects the people of Sweetwater County,” Johnson said.
Johnson said when a PacifiCorp representative was asked why the company is doing this, the reply was “consumer preference.” Only consumers in California, Oregon and Washington will benefit, Johnson said. What’s going to happen is that the units being retired will be “cannibalized” as they go down, Johnson said. He supports putting the units up for sale instead.
Rob Piippo, general manager at the Kemmerer coal mine, spoke next. He decided to travel to Rock Springs to add input to the comments he made at Tuesday’s meeting in Kemmerer. Nearly 200 people were in attendance at that hearing, according to the Kemmerer Gazette. Piippo took issue with the fact that people in Oregon made a decision that led to coal studies that affect Wyoming workers. He said wind, solar and battery resources should receive the same scrutiny that coal has.
“Don’t remove units for unreliable alternative energy sources,” he said.
He also stressed the negative impact that the plan will have on families, children and schools.
Michelle Irwin, a resident of Sweetwater County, spoke in support of the 2019 IRP. She said it is good news for the Wyoming economy and rate payers. Wyoming has been dependent on coal, but energy markets are changing, Irwin said. She noted that the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources (SER) is doing work and research to address those issues. She encouraged the Public Service Commission members to conduct a thorough investigation as they move forward. She said the IRP document is confusing at best, but that the plan is driven by changing energy environments and the desire to reduce CO2 emissions. She noted that the IRP includes community and employee transition plans and said those involved should work to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
Rep. Clark Stith, Wyoming legislator for House District 48, said he agrees with Commissioner Johnson’s opinion of the IRP. He said his concern is for his constituents and the negative impact the proposed actions of retiring coal units will have on them. He referred to two problematic issues: stranded coal assets and negative externalities. He said the IRP does not address the issue of stranded coal assets or their potential cost to investors or rate payers. As far as negative externalities, Stith said the proposed plan will suck money out of local communities.
PacifiCorp claims the plan will reduce customer costs, but Stith said there is no analysis of the amount of damage it will cost in terms of negative economic impact. He said even if jobs are lost to attrition, there will still be fewer people employed — causing damage to the community.
By the time the final hour of Wednesday’s hearing rolled around, there were about half as many people in the council chambers as at the start. People continued to comment, though, including several community members who expressed concern for local workers who would be affected by early closures of coal-fired units. Regina Clark, president of the Western Wyoming Community College Board of Trustees, became a bit emotional, saying she can relate to the difficult impacts on families and livelihoods. She said education is one of the resources we have to help communities transition through these times. Clark also said she believes the corporation is trying to be responsible and referred to the fact that energy resources have always been changing.
“We’re going to have to redesign ourselves,” she said.