Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Dry Fork Station north of Gillette was one of the last coal-fired power plants built in the U.S., commencing operations in 2011. The $1.35 billion power plant has a generating capacity of 385 megawatts. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

Wyoming lawmakers are considering a suite of bills to help keep aging coal-fired power plants in the state in operation, including one measure that would 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.

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%, ramping up to 100%, 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.

Language in the suite of proposed coal power bills, Zwonitzer said, 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.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, stands and claps following an address by Chief Justice Michael Davis during the 66th Wyoming Legislature Tuesday, March 2, 2021, from the Senate chamber. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

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 Monday.

Critics of the sweeping new mandates say the premise of keeping aging coal-fired power units online while increasing the state’s reliance on fossil fuel power generation for the sake of achieving the lowest-cost most-reliable electricity is based on false assumptions. Relying more, not less, on coal will only put Wyoming ratepayers at risk of higher costs and less reliable power, they say.

More than a decade of advancing policies, renewable energy technology advances and market forces beyond Wyoming’s control make aging coal-fired power more of a risk to Wyoming ratepayers, said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council. She noted Wyoming’s largest public utilities also operate in several other states, which means Wyoming has limited authority to impose a regulatory regime to ensure it is predominantly powered by coal well into the future.

“This kind of shotgun legislation is really too fast and too much, and it needs a lot more thought and deliberation,” Anderson told WyoFile. “Legislators are coming from a place where they just really believe these coal plants are necessary for Wyoming, and if that is what you believe, it’s really easy to ignore the problems with these bills.”

Wyoming is already primarily served by coal-fired power generation, and it relies on other states in the western power grid to purchase Wyoming-based coal-fired power. As those states continue to rely less on coal, the state would be taking a huge risk on behalf of Wyoming ratepayers if it were to mandate coal as its primary source of power generation, Anderson said.

Rocky Mountain Power Vice President of Government Affairs Jon Cox told lawmakers Monday that affordable and reliable power has always been a primary driver for the public utility. RMP and its parent company, PacifiCorp, prioritize reliability and affordability in plans to gradually shift from coal to more renewable power sources, he said.

“The issue of reliability is at the core of what our business is, and we should be talking about it,” Cox said. “I would welcome the conversation on ways that we can improve our reliability rate today in the state of Wyoming, which is 99.98%, not 100%.”

Mary Throne in 2015, at the time the House Minority Floor Leader (D-Cheyenne).

Wyoming Public Service Commissioner Mary Throne asked lawmakers to consider proposed amendments to draft bill language to allow utilities to retire coal plants if necessary to remain in compliance with federal clean air standards. Sometimes replacing an aging coal unit — some in Wyoming have been in operation for 50 years — is a cheaper alternative than adding emission-scrubbing technologies, she said.

Public comment at Monday’s Minerals Committee hearing was limited to representatives of electric utilities for a total of about 15 minutes. 

Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) said he would reserve more time for public comment when the Minerals Committee resumes discussion on the bills Wednesday.

Legislation aimed at preserving coal power in Wyoming

House Bill 155 – Electric generation-reliability and liability  

House Bill 166 – Utilities-presumption against early facility retirements 

House Bill 207 – Coal fired generation facility closures-litigation funding

House Bill 248 – Electricity Production Standard 

House Bill 257 – Coal fired power plant closure moratorium 

House Bill 258 – Public utilities-reliability and transparency requirements

House Bill 259 – Public utilities-regulatory amendments

Senate File 136 – Required public service commission considerations

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. All of the horses and mules in Wyoming can’t pull the state into the coal-less future. There is no future in denial.

    I’m reminded of the movie Mountain Men with Charlton Heston and Brian Keith. Keith as Henry Frapp couldn’t believe or accept that the fur trade was rapidly coming to a close. Coal is essentially done. Admit it and work for a better Wyoming future

  2. Folks, these same people that we’ve sent to Cheyenne are also trying to blacklist residential rooftop solar systems that are tied back into the grid. If you do your research, make the calls/emails to these Rep’s, you’ll find out that the push to eliminate the residential (and may I remind you, citizens of this State) energy providers is coming from the big, out of State owned utilities. Apparently our elected people in Cheyenne are bowing down the big boys while at same time putting the screws to the citizens of Wyoming

  3. Not arguing for or against this proposal, but I find it comical that the comments take the government/legislature to task for trying to prop up an industry that is in fact being regulated out of existence by government.

    1. So, you want the state of Wyoming to close schools and eliminate school districts to save money, but have no problem with the state stepping over dollars to pick up dimes in regards to coal? I’d say your bias is obvious, but you already know that.

      The future of coal was killed with cheap natural gas. But let’s go ahead and keep throwing money away to appease those who refuse to see the writing on the wall.

      We should be proactive and not reactive. Coal shouldn’t be a major player anymore. It’s time to remove the government teet from the coal dialog.

  4. Taking over a coal-fired power plant and operating it as a state-operated municipal utility? REALLY??? This smacks exactly as the type of socialism conservatives and Republicans decry in their campaign rhetoric!
    As a previous commenter said, “What will it take to drag the Wyoming legislature into the 21st century,” regardless of the kicking and screaming?

  5. Good grief, what’s next? Will the Legislature vote to require Buggy Whip and Oxen Yoke factories to be established in Wyoming and supported by taxpayers?

    This approach of propping up a slowly dying industry is ludicrous. It’s a “looking ahead by seeing what’s in my rear view mirror” mindset.

    Even so, I can understand their thinking. Old Fossils protecting old fossils makes sense in a way. Afraid of a changing world, they’ll fight to maintain the status quo another decade or century no matter what. Thanks to their paleo approach, other states will gallop ahead galvanized by innovation and powered by efficiency while Wyoming squats in their dust. “Giddy-up Old Nellie, gotta head to Cheyenne and vote!”

  6. I am 70 years old , a Wyoming native, yet I retain hope I will live long enough to see the day when ” Coal fired powerplant” is categorized as Alternative Energy.

    What will it take to drag the Wyoming Legislature into the 21st century that will minimize the kicking and screaming ? I am growing quite weary of the fossil thinking being used to prop up fossil fuels around here.

  7. An industry being kept alive and kicking with help from the government. What a shame.