PacifiCorp’s Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant just outside Glenrock is slated for retirement but proponents of carbon capture technology suggest a conversion could extend the life of one unit. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

PacifiCorp recently released its 2021 Integrated Resource Plan, which forecasts future demand for power in the region and the sources of electrical energy PacifiCorp has determined will be necessary to meet this demand most efficiently and reliably. The Wyoming Public Service Commission has solicited public comments leading up to its review of the IRP; the deadline for comments is Friday, Feb. 11.

The two-volume IRP is a formidable document, with 850 pages of high-level analysis and supporting data. While the average ratepayer cannot be expected to wade through this comprehensive document, it nonetheless discloses potential generating resources that should command the attention of Rocky Mountain Power’s 142,000 Wyoming customers and all other individuals concerned about the energy future of Wyoming.

The good

The preferred portfolio includes a slight increase in wind generation and a dramatic increase in battery storage. It also suggests an 88% reduction in overall carbon dioxide emissions over the 20-year planning period by adding renewable sources of energy and retiring virtually all the utility’s coal assets by 2050. 

PacifiCorp’s analysis suggests that retrofitting coal-burning power units with carbon capture sequestration and utilization technologies is cost prohibitive. It solicited proposals from potential CCUS suppliers, and only one respondent expressed intent to complete a front-end engineering design study. The IRP appropriately states that capital cost, transportation infrastructure, the lack of available federal funding and other factors still contribute to the risk and uncertainty of CCUS.

The bad

Unfortunately, the IRP leaves open a contingency plan to include CCUS at the Dave Johnston power plant, pending regulatory developments and the review of CCUS proposals. But the downfalls of coal-based CCUS have been sufficiently demonstrated. 

Boundary Dam and Petra Nova, the only utility-scale coal-plant CCUS retrofit projects in North America, both incurred higher costs and achieved lower performance than originally advertised. In April of 2020 Petra Nova in Houston shut down with the intent to restart on a seasonal basis. A year later the company announced the plant would be mothballed indefinitely

Boundary Dam unit 3, in Saskatchewan, has gained operating experience for eight years, yet the plant struggled with mechanical failures in 2021 and achieved only 37% CO2 capture efficiency. Over its entire life, the plant has averaged 67% capture efficiency, compared to the target rate of 90%. SaskPower’s decision to scrap plans to retrofit units 4 and 5 with CCUS speaks for itself.

Most of SaskPower’s problems are inherent to coal plants and will not go away with more experimentation. The Wyoming Energy Authority recently granted three CCUS research funding requests (out of 17 proposals), none of which involve coal. The award stated, “these three proposals illustrated that their projects are at a scale sufficient to demonstrate commercial viability.”

The ugly

The preferred portfolio includes plans for the Natrium advanced nuclear demonstration facility near Kemmerer. The plant’s continuous capacity would only make up 3% of the utility’s system-wide peak load. But the estimated $4 billion capital investment, subsidized by TerraPower and DOE (subject to future appropriations), represents 16% of the company’s 20-year revenue stream. We should not dismiss the importance of this project to the Kemmerer community and to the advancement of nuclear knowhow. But neither should we close our eyes to the failure risks — financial, regulatory and safety. It is unusual for ratepayers to take on such risks for experimental power generation projects, especially when exhaustive prototype testing at scale was bypassed.

The experts may be wrong, but they paint a dismal picture of the future of nuclear power.

Ronn Smith

Contemporary nuclear power projects raise plenty of red flags. Units 3 and 4 of the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, currently under construction, will be at least six years late coming online, while their capital costs have escalated from $14 billion in 2017 to $28.5 billion in 2021

The IRP acknowledges that the marginal energy storage cost for the Natrium molten salt system exceeds that of lithium-ion batteries and far exceeds that of solar plus batteries. The Natrium technology has been promoted in part for its compact energy storage relative to batteries, but the cost of energy storage is the most relevant parameter for ratepayers. While the Natrium storage design has value as a demonstration project and may deliver unquantified ancillary benefits, the ratepayer should not subsidize an economically inefficient storage technology.

The experts may be wrong, but they paint a dismal picture of the future of nuclear power. Over the last two decades, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received license applications for 31 new reactors, of which 29 were canceled due to the lack of economic viability. 

Aside from nuclear power’s widespread budget and schedule overruns, cheaper alternatives abound. A 2021 report from Wall Street firm Lazard estimates the cost of new nuclear energy at $131 to $204 per megawatt-hour compared to $26 to $50 for wind, and $30 to $41 for utility-scale solar. The cost differential will more than pay for storage batteries to back up renewable energy.

The money and momentum behind the Natrium project mean that it will probably get built. It certainly has an upside. But the PSC should ensure that attendant financial risks are shouldered entirely by PacifiCorp’s shareholders. This would not only relieve Wyoming ratepayers of an open-ended liability, but it might also encourage a more thorough risk evaluation by PacifiCorp.

Ronn Smith is a process and environmental engineer with 40 years of experience in the energy industry. He is also a lifelong member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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  1. If/en we would use the water power, hydros, Glenrock has not run for 50 yrs, Hydro west of Lingle
    was shout down when they finished the Canal. WASTE

  2. Its not the 1970s
    Lets get on with the future.
    Decommission the coal plants.
    Build more wind.
    Create a solar grid and install solar distributed energy.
    Regarding nuclear…recall the “too cheap to meter” arguments of decades ago. Ha!
    The future is now!
    I have a long history as an energy/environment and technology expert. There isn’t anything since 1973 that I haven’t seen proposed… including what I call the “two for two” Oil and gas for coal and nuclear power; then gas ( coal gas, fracked gas, LNG etc.) and nuclear power ( light water reactors, sodium reactors, breeder reactors, small compact reactors…) It never stops because institutions fail at moving forward, addressing a future that looks different than the past, and public health is secondary to the maintenance of the status quo.

  3. It seems if you want lower carbon as well as have capacity to have a stable base load to manage power needs, as more renewables come on line, then batteries or nuclear has to be the option? Reliability and Resiliency have to be considered and paid for? Consumers nor suppliers really paid for the total cost of using coal as the pollution is still around us, so being realistic about future actual costs should be a priority. Consumers should also be educated/informed about these issues.

    As far as Nuclear goes, the USA made some real mistakes in letting power companies that burned coal and the so called free market to design, build and install these units. Based on watching how Zimmer Nuclear power plant imploded at 95% completion and was converted to coal back in the 1970s it is clear the rate payers and the tax payers losses did not focus the mind of government. The situation reminds me of the FAA and evaluating planes, the regulators do not have the expertise in house to determine if all these fancy software and aerodynamics don’t conflict? Since they do not, the government either allows things to get missed or slows every thing down because no one wants to sign off on the risk.

    So far France has proven that picking a single design and sticking with that unit makes training, installing and repairing these highly sensitive power generating units in a safer manner. The US had a model like this available at the dawn of nuclear power age as the US Navy seemingly runs a good program, but free market America decided nuclear power generation could be left up to amateurs.

    Nuclear is needed at a great number of places around the planet and it’s implementation and waste generation should have a world solution, unfortunately we just do not have the capacity to manage these realities at the moment.

    Thanks for the analysis on the plan.

    1. It wasn’t that the country decided that amateurs were in control of nuclear power generation, but moreso capitalism allowed the lowest bidder to be in control of design and construction.

  4. I think there has to be a better alternative to Nuclear, we have so many natural resources to use that do not pose disasterous threats. I would love to see more hydro power usage

  5. In reply to David Nix, Pacificorp did study pumped hydro (including the proposed Seminoe Pumped Storage project in Wyoming, with a proposed online date of 2029). They provided for 500 MW of new pumped hydro across their system by 2040.

  6. One often overlooked storage solution that will be naturally coming online in the next few years are EVs. An analysis of their impact on energy storage over the next few decades would be interesting.