Bernie Caulfield, a supervising engineer at Jim Bridger Plant, says workers there worry about their future. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

PacifiCorp and its 1.9 million utility customers could save $599 million by retiring several coal-fired electrical generating units in Wyoming and elsewhere — including early closures at the Jim Bridger and Naughton plants —  according to a company analysis unveiled last week.

In public meetings in Portland and Salt Lake City, PacifiCorp unveiled 30 business options or portfolios it will use to build its Integrated Resource Plan — the mix of sources from which it will deliver power to customers — in October. That plan will guide the utility, and determine the fate of its 25 power-generating units.

A PacifiCorp analysis called “Portfolio 46” predicts the largest savings: $599 million achieved by mothballing the entire Jim Bridger Plant in 13 years, closing the Dave Johnston Plant near Glenrock in eight years and shuttering two units at the Naughton Plant near Kemmerer in six years, along with other changes.

In addition to costs, the 30 portfolios will be evaluated for risk, reliability, carbon emissions, customer preference and other factors. The company compared the 30 analyses to “Portfolio 1,” the benchmark that follows existing priorities.

If it continued under the current IRP, PacifiCorp would retire two units at Naughton a decade from now. It would shut down the four units at Dave Johnston east of Casper in eight years as already anticipated. The company would retrofit two Jim Bridger units and then retire the entire plant in 2037 — 18 years from now. Wyodak outside Gillette would go offline in two decades.

But each of the new options offer millions of dollars in savings compared to the company’s current course, according to a PowerPoint presentation delivered by PacificCorp at last week’s meetings. Some call for one unit at Naughton to be converted to burning natural gas instead of coal.

“Pacificorp’s own analysis shows that keeping aging coal plants running will mean higher electricity bills for Wyoming families and businesses,” Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter, said in a statement. Her organization has campaigned against coal burning.

“Wyoming can no longer keep its head in the sand on the declining economics of coal power,” she wrote. “Now is the time to help coal-dependent communities in Southwest Wyoming make an orderly transition away from coal rather than risking the sort of sudden job losses that we’ve seen in recent coal bankruptcies.”

Jobs at stake 

At the sprawling Jim Bridger Plant with its landmark 500-foot high smoke stacks, workers like supervising engineer Bernie Caulfield understand coal’s decline and the effects on sister communities like Gillette. The plant and associated coal mines employee some 800 people in southwest Wyoming and can produce enough electricity to power 1.76 million homes, according to WyoFile calculations.

 Of PacifiCorp’s 1.9 million customers, though, only 140,000 live in Wyoming.

 “It’s pretty obvious they feel threatened,” Caulfield told WyoFile of his colleagues while traversing dusty catwalks at Jim Bridger, stories above the ground, on a recent tour of the facility. Miners have watched sudden bankruptcies close two surface mines in eastern Wyoming and with each troubling development, Caulfield said, they ask “what does it mean for my employment?”

At the Jim Bridger Plant, workers collect parts and equipment for a job on a coal grinder. The plant and associated mines employ about 800 people. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Caulfield grew up in Anaconda, Montana, a copper mining town that withered and now deals with legacy pollution. That experience left him with mixed emotions, he said.

“It provided jobs for lots of people, lots of families,” he said. And now Jim Bridger’s future too becomes an “economic calculation,” he said.

“People’s fathers and grandfathers have worked here,” Caulfield said at Jim Bridger. Today’s workers, “they just want to live their lives.”

 Is the customer always right?

Jim Bridger workers also understand who they ultimately serve — consumers spread across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming who dictate to their supplier what kinds of power they want. In an age of climate change, that choice is increasingly solar and wind power instead of coal.

“They’re our customer,” said Mike Rodriguez, an operator at Jim Bridger’s control room who monitors a bank of computer screens and associated keyboards. “They’re our priority. They come first.”

In the plant manager’s office, Jim Bridger’s managing director Rick Tripp shoots straight with his “family” of employees, he said. Plaques recognizing contributions to community service organizations, plus dozens of pictures of his fawn boxers and a couple of shots of his sleek Corvette adorn his office walls.

“We are very open,” Tripp said about communicating PacifiCorp’s plans. “We have regular meetings with the people … almost every month.”

Despite increasing use of solar and wind power, layoffs at Jim Bridger are uncommon, he said. “We won’t eliminate people. We do it through attrition.”

In troubled times, “we’re trying to do as much as we can for our employees,” Tripp said. But, he added, “we have to support our customers.”

PacifiCorp’s charge is to offer those customers power based on reliability, risk, cost and preferences, among other factors. In the new dynamic, that might mean closing an expansive plant that otherwise seems to be humming along splendidly.

A worker rides through the Jim Bridger Plant. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“If you talk to them today,” Tripp said of the workers, “they’re still very proud. They want to see these plants run.”

At the adjacent Bridger Mine, Manager of Technical Services Scott Palmer mulled the future as he drove over reclaimed mine land. He stopped the truck to answer a question and explain that he’s approaching retirement. However, if he were starting his career, he said, “I wouldn’t pick this as a profession.”

A battle within the war

The IRP PacifiCorp chooses in October will largely determine the future of PacifiCorp’s fleet of facilities. Meantime, a proposal for operating Jim Bridger within the existing framework is being met with controversy. 

The company recently requested Wyoming regulators to allow it to cut production at Jim Bridger to meet Clean Air Act rules. Until this year, the utility had instead planned on investing $280 million in pollution controls to meet federal regional haze requirements.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has supported the request and expects to submit the issue to the federal EPA for approval. PacifiCorp told the DEQ it would reduce coal consumption by about 9.3% compared to current operations, according to WyoFile calculations.

The proposed reduction will bring “economic harm … decreased tax revenues, reduced special use taxes, and potential loss of jobs,” a coalition of four counties’ commissioners wrote to the DEQ in a five-page letter.

The letter is one of three DEQ received on the PacifiCorp proposal to forego the $280 million in pollution controls in favor of reducing the plant’s output to 76.3% of capacity.

The brighter paint on a stories-high pollution control unit added to Jim Bridger in 2015 stands out from the weathered steel of the original plant. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming’s DEQ agrees with PacifiCorp’s request that no additional pollution controls are needed at the Jim Bridger and that the company’s short-term plans “provide enforceable emission limits,” and meet required federal regional haze goals.

Sweetwater, Lincoln, Uinta and Sublette county governments say the PacifiCorp request to Wyoming regulators can’t replace the existing state plan for regional haze. That plan requires installation of “selective catalytic reduction” pollution controls on units 1 and 2 at Jim Bridger. Units 3 and 4 of the 4-unit plant already have the systems.

Instead of spending $280 million on the additional controls, the company wants to rejigger its measuring protocol as it throttles down Jim Bridger output. Under its proposal to Wyoming DEQ, PacifiCorp would essentially measure emissions from the entire plant across a rolling 30-day-window instead of tracking specific emissions from each of the four coal-burning boiler units.

Commissioners said the plan isn’t good for residents’ health. The DEQ published county comments on its website following a records request by the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“[T]he Jim Bridger Plant will still emit pollutants into the air on the days the plants run and … these daily emissions will still adversely effect [sic] air quality and human health,” the commissioners’ letter reads.

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“The Coalition … considers PacifiCorp’s request to run the plant less to meet emissions standards as a way to evade the original [state] requirements without addressing public health and all air quality issues,” the local governments wrote. Also, “running the Jim Bridge Plant less will reduce coal mining and greatly impact Sweetwater County and the region.”

In addition to the county commissioners’ objections the Wyoming DEQ also received letters from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and a bloc of three conservation groups.

EPA wrote two pages of comments, making 15 specific points, including a request that Wyoming regulators state whether PacifiCorp’s proposed “voluntary measures” will be enforceable.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association together filed 30 pages that included assertions that PacifiCorp is proposing an “illegal about face.”

PacifiCorp’s request to forego pollution controls “must be denied,” the groups wrote because of “longstanding agency determinations requiring [selective catalytic reduction] at units 1 and 2 of the Jim Bridger Power Plant.”

DEQ made an inadequate review of the company submission, the groups claim. PacifiCorp’s proposal is unenforceable, would increase nitrous oxide and sulfur emissions and suffers from internal contradictions, the conservationists assert.

In all, the groups made 10 major points, including that the proposal is unlawful. Citing “serious flaws” in the reassessment, Wyoming’s conclusions are “technically deficient, and as such invalid,” the letter reads.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. The coal industry cannot be saved. The supply and demand basis of our economy simply will not support coal. The following statistics from the April 2019 edition of Forbes illustrate why:

    “Economics are driving both sides of this equation: Building new renewable energy is cheaper than running existing coal plants and prices get cheaper every year. By 2025, almost every existing coal plant in the United States will cost more to operate than building replacement wind and solar within 35 miles of each plant.

    Multiple states and utilities are setting 100% clean energy goals, creating new demand for workers to build solar panels and wind turbines. Planning for the inevitable coal-to-clean economic transition can create new economic opportunities in every corner of the country – and some forward-thinking policymakers are already heeding this lesson.
    The renewable energy industry has become a major U.S. employer. E2’s recent Clean Jobs America report found nearly 3.3 million Americans working in clean energy – outnumbering fossil fuel workers by 3-to-1. Nearly 335,000 people work in the solar industry and more than 111,000 work in the wind industry, compared to 211,000 working in coal mining or other fossil fuel extraction. Clean energy employment grew 3.6% in 2018, adding 110,000 net new jobs (4.2% of all jobs added nationally in 2018), and employers expect 6% job growth in 2019.

    E2 reports the fastest-growing jobs across 12 states were in renewable energy during 2018, and renewable energy is already the fastest-growing source of new U.S. electricity generation, leading the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to forecast America’s two fastest-growing jobs through 2026 will be solar installer (105% growth) and wind technician (96% growth).”

    I shared this information with a state senator to no avail. Wyoming’s elected officials should be preparing our people for the energy jobs of the present and future, not the past.

  2. First off , there is no renewable energy so its going to take allot of energy to make windmills and solar panels.

    The wind mills iron ore is produced to China, then they ship it to American, ship to where they make the steel, ship it to where they form it to what they need, then ship it to the mountain, build the roads, dig and poor concrete and put in into place and then install power lines. All that takes more energy even if the windmill turns for 20 years as projected, it’s still a negative carbon foot print. Now add the grave yard effect, after 20 years it takes even more energy to take them down and then what will you do with them, dig a hole and bury them or like California which they have done nothing, one big standing windmill grave yard, is this the future for WYO?

    Now I have read that the latest windmill projects from Obama time in office was paid for by the government, part of Obama $10 trillion debt he left us with, and then handed it over to some company like PacifiCorp to collect the money and then in 20 years it is returned to the government to take care of the grave yard. Is this true?

    The same goes for solar but the life expectancy is 10 years.

    I would like to see the complete package from start to finish. The real dollar cost and the projected carbon footprint. Now of coarse the windmills are projected to turn none stop for 20 years, we all know that’s not true.

    Please, give us the complete picture. But, we all know big money that pays the most to congress and state officials will do whatever they want.

    PS, China is the largest country contaminating the environment with the most poisonous substance on the planet and the winds comes from China direction, so just keep in mind the haze we see in WYO is not just from WYO.

    Also, ethanol has a yellowish haze as it comes out of every car, pickup and truck exhaust pipes, another Obama follow the money scheme. If your truthfully interested in having an honest talk about clear air at a reduced price, another subject for you all.

    1. Uh huh,
      After all the griping about wind and solar energy, the PS comment HAD to get a dig at Obama. Except the ethanol scam (and I do agree it is) began decades before Obama was anywhere in the big bad gummint morass of evilness.

  3. People falsely blame renewables and the EPA for coal’s decline, but what killed it was the sustained low price of natural gas. The refinement of fracking techniques unlocked vast quantities of natural gas and rewrote the economics of electricity generation. Had there been no fracking, renewables would be nibbling around the edges, but coal would still be in a strong position today. The coal industry, for whatever reason, directed its marketing and lobbying efforts almost entirely towards attacking the EPA while doing nothing to try and block fracking. This was a huge tactical mistake.

    1. Your right!! I commented to a friend of mine that if for some reason natural gas went to $5.00 plus,(from less than $3.00 now) then the generation from coal would definitely go up. Too bad no one wants to pay for clean coal technology. Fracking is quickly depleting the gas reserves, not to mention the damage it is causing to water supplies etc. Nuke power is dangerous beyond belief AND NOW the state of Wyoming is open to storing spent rods? Wind power is coming on. Coal could really be, “Americas Ace in the Hole”. but until it’s affordable no one wants to invest.. Unfortunately, Coal may be near death by then.

  4. I’m in complete agreement with the previous post. Pacificorp has been planning this for a long time and have recently accelerated the closure. It’s more about money than their environmental concience. Wind and solar are cheaper by a long way and this is an industry driven plan. No use blaming the government. The wind and the sun are a free commodity. The labor cost for a wind farm is less than one tenth of a thermal plant. No more good paying union jobs either. The work around is to call employees contractors. Someday Wyoming will be a forest of windmills. Wyoming voters have elected the mossbacks that have allowed this to happen. Complain with your vote if you must but welcome to the future.

  5. MEMO
    TO: Wyoming Governor, Legislators, County Commissioners , and appointees to Legislative Management coal bailout committee

    Wyoming’s bulk coal business is going away. Soon The writing is on the wall in , 10-foot tall red block letters . “No Mo Coal”.

    It’s been there since late 2008, over ten years, but you purposely ignored it. *** You were warned this day would come . No more ignorance or denial over coal , please. The path is clear. It leads to Wyoming version 2.0 , a state without a significant fossil industry. One state south of you in Colorado over 35,000 jobs have been created in Alternative Energy in the past decade, while you were fretting over the loss of a few hundred coal mining jobs . You cannot ignore that , or remain in denial about clean energy. Time to come into the 21st century while you still have one good leg to stand on. The Reckoning is here. Now.

    One big plus about clean green energy is that it does not create National Energy Sacrifice Zones ( read: Wyoming and West Virginia ) where human health is inversely proportional to corporate wealth. That curve has inverted. America and especially Wyoming have never paid the true cost of coal. Not till now , anyway. The bills are coming due , from Cheyenne to Charleston WV and Washington D.C., and coal can no longer pay for its own upkeep. What are we going to do about that ? Wyoming has ten years at best to totally rethink, retool , replace coal mines with … something else.

    *** One century ago back in the Roaring 1920’s in the Gilded Age of robber barons, over 800,000 Americans were employed in coal mining. The national population was 1/3rd of what it is today , yet coal mines had sixteen times the jobs . In the early 1930’s the primary consumer of coal — the railroads —made a decision to switch from coal to diesel to drive the locomotives. Coal crashed down to less than 50,000 employees. Close to home the mighty Union Pacific Railroad began dieselization in the early 50’s and the last coal fired steampunk train retired from active duty in 1959 . It’s not like Wyoming hasn’t gone thru a coal bust before. You know what they say about those who do not learn from history… there have been so many Boom-Bust cycles in Wyoming that one’s head spins. Except this time around, coal is not coming back.