Closure Of Western Coal-Fired Power Plants Is Picking Up Steam

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Hayden coal-fired power station between Craig and Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado is currently operated by Xcel Energy. It originally went into service in 1965.

A major Western utility said Thursday it plans to speed up its move away from coal-fired power and get more juice from the sun and wind.

Citing financial incentives, Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp said it wants to reduce coal-fired generation by two-thirds by 2030 while pursuing a buildout of wind and solar energy.

Federal tax incentives make those renewables less expensive for PacifiCorp’s 1.9 million customers in California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, the utility said.

“We are set to manage this transition in a way that keeps costs as affordable as possible for our customers and also maintain system reliability,” said Rick Link, PacifiCorp’s vice president for resource planning.

The plan quickly met criticism from coal-industry supporters who said it goes too far, while environmental groups complained that it doesn’t go far enough.

“Clearly the early closure of coal-fired power units and the associated mines is a blow to the people of Wyoming,” said Gov. Mark Gordon, whose state supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s coal and has three of the affected coal-fired plants.

Sierra Club spokesman Thomas Young pushed for even deeper cuts in coal-fired energy. He said PacifiCorp could save customers more money and emit less greenhouse gas by pursuing more aggressive downsizing of the resource.

The utility isn't alone in stepping away from coal-fired electricity. U.S. utilities have announced the retirement of over 546 coal-fired power generators since 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The decline is largely responsible for a 30 percent drop in U.S. coal production during that time.

The proposal by PacifiCorp would hasten closure of the Colstrip power plant in eastern Montana. Two of the plant’s four generating units are scheduled to close this year; the remaining two may now close in 2027 instead of 2046.

It also would hasten the shutdown of coal-fired generators at the Jim Bridger and Naughton power plants in Wyoming and the Craig power plant in Colorado.

PacifiCorp was already pursuing partial or full closure of three other coal-fired power plants near Joseph City, Arizona; Hayden, Colorado; and Glenrock, Wyoming by 2030.

The changes announced Thursday would see PacifiCorp dropping 4,500 megawatts of coal-fired power and adding 4,600 megawatts of wind power and 6,300 megawatts of solar power by 2038.

A megawatt of solar can power 150-210 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

PacifiCorp has been studying the change for a year and expects to send a final plan to state regulators for review in coming weeks.