Dave Eskelsen surveys the Unit 3 coal grinder that shut down Jan. 30. Plant manager Rodger Holt, behind him, looks down from the two-story-high machine that environmental regulations and market forces have sidelined. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

KEMMERER — Operators at PacifiCorp’s Naughton Plant will shut down Unit 3 today, a giant furnace and electrical generator that consumed 165 tons of coal an hour.

Part of the three-unit Naughton Plant outside this town of 2,747, Unit 3’s warren of conveyor belts, robust coal grinder, towering boiler, maze of steam pipes and spinning generator will fall silent —  a casualty of environmental regulations and market forces beyond its control.

Restrictions imposed by the Clean Air Act, state regulations, an abundant supply of natural gas, new solar and wind power sources and customer preferences set the industrial complex on its heels. The Naughton Plant sprawls across 1,120 acres near the Kemmerer coal mine and can generate up to 700 megawatts of electricity. Its first unit was commissioned in 1963, 56 years ago.

The Naughton Plant employs approximately 126 workers, down about 25 percent — about 31 workers — through attrition over the past five years, Plant Managing Director Rodger Holt said. Unit 3, which generates 280 megawatts net, can power 140,000 homes, said Dave Eskelsen, a spokesman for PacifiCorp and its subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power.

Holt, who has worked 17 years with PacifiCorp and served at the Naughton Plant since 2006, chose his assignment in Kemmerer because of the plant and town. He has a casual but businesslike rapport with the workers he meets when he walks among the plant’s catwalks, decks, shops, offices and labs.

“I like it here,” Holt said in his office at the back of the 20-story high plant. “I have a house. I love the community.”

But it would take “a couple of hundred million dollars,” Holt said, to upgrade Unit 3 to meet emission limits for nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and other pollutants while burning coal. And that’s not going to happen.

“This is it,” he said last week. “There’s no other way out.”

A big plant

Everything at the Naughton Plant is huge, except workers on the ground when seen from a catwalk at the top level of the complex. “We call it 10 stories but ours are a lot bigger than normal,” he says. “It’s probably a 16- to 20-story building.” Naughton Plant operates 24/7, 365 days a year.

The adjacent Kemmerer Mine feeds the hungry plant. Conveyor belts and trucks bring coal from the Westmoreland pit-and-shovel operation to Holt’s doorstep.

A giant coal pile of 225,000 tons rises to the south of Naughton. Conveyor belts shuttle the coal to three two-story-high grinders — one for each unit. They mill the chunks into a powder that ductwork whooshes into four sides of three separate boiler fireboxes.

The Viva Naughton Reservoir on the Hams Fork of the Green River supplies the water. The impoundment was named after the wife of Edward Naughton, the president of Utah Power & Light Co. that built the complex now owned by Rocky Mountain Power.

Towering smokestacks that spew mostly steam dwarf a worker on the ground at the Naughton Plant. Rising some 20 stories, the plant shut down Unit 3 on Jan. 30, a generator that powered the equivalent of 140,000 homes. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

High-pressure steam pipes run from boilers to the three generators. Steam spins each generator at 3,600 revolutions a minute — so fast one can’t see an exposed shaft rotate.

Open-air catwalks and gangways traverse past towering smokestacks and cooling towers that billow steam and emissions into the Rocky Mountain winter air. “Most of what you see is water vapor,” he says.

In the control room, a bank of about 30 computer screens stretches some 50 feet across the power plant’s nerve center. Last week Steve Burgess was at the helm of Unit 3, rattling off the plant’s statistics, pointing to graphs, flow charts and spreadsheets as he explained some workings.

He pushed a big red emergency button in a demonstration. About 50 lights began to blink but Burgess deactivated them before any audible alarm, horn or claxon blared.

Die cast five years ago

An emergency isn’t what shut down Unit 3 at the Naughton Plant today. Instead, it was the dense pages of regulatory speak published in the Federal Register — the government’s official public-notice newspaper — on Jan. 30, 2014.

On that date the EPA published a proposed rule accepting Wyoming’s state implementation plan designed to meet Clean Air Act regional haze standards. The state plan envisioned Unit 3 ceasing as a coal-burning enterprise within five years.

Conversations about converting the plant from coal to gas to meet the Wyoming plan began at that time. There’s been some uncertainty regarding what would happen to Unit 3, including talk among employees.

“There was almost a belief that [the deadline] could be changed,” Holt said. To keep the workers informed, some time ago he called a meeting to quell speculation. In front of the team, he pointed to the Federal Register.

From 20 stories up, Naughton Plant Manager Rodger Holt explains how 225,000 tons of coal will be shuttled into three boiler fireboxes, one of which was shut down Jan. 30 to meet environmental regulations. Whether Unit 3 will be converted to run on natural gas remains uncertain. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to approve a source-specific revision to the Wyoming State Implementation Plan (SIP) that provides an alternative to Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) for Unit 3 at the Naughton Power Plant (“the SIP revision”) that is owned and operated by PacifiCorp,” the Register’s notice reads. Bottom line: Not burning coal “would provide greater reasonable progress toward natural visibility.”

“This is where it came from,” Holt told the employees. “That’s the reality. We have no option at this point.”

Workers took their medicine stoically, Holt said. “I don’t think it really shocked anybody.” Nevertheless, “there’s no one at this plant doing cartwheels that Unit 3 is closing.”

Long road to renewables

PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Eskelsen traced the long and twisting path his firm has traveled since it began generating electricity from hydro power in 1912. “This company has gone through a tremendous amount of technological change,” he said.

After WWII, with the proliferation of electrical appliances, the rush was on to build power plants. They popped up where coal was available, it being cheaper to transmit electricity than to haul the rock. “It was a very dependable and low-cost energy source,” he said. Often companies sited plants near small towns like Kemmerer.

Now PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, faces an “extremely dynamic” planning environment, Eskelsen said. It updates its integrated resource plan every two years, providing an outlook for a “least-cost/least-risk” energy portfolio.

“Mostly it’s a customer calculation,” Eskelsen said, but the plan also is guided by state standards and federal rules. Part of an 11-state Western grid that was originally built for redundancy, the power network today provides a wholesale market that weighs on power-purchase decisions.

“Natural gas prices have been a real game-changer,” Eskelsen said, and renewable energy sources are making an impact. Since the year 2000, the only new energy sources the company has purchased have been from solar or wind projects – mostly from third-party entrepreneurs.

Customer desires also steer the course. “Many do want renewable energy,” Eskelsen said.

Union tried to help workers

For former Naughton Plant worker, Gary Cox, environmentalists are a key reason Unit 3 will not burn coal again. Cox a 20-year-plus Naughton veteran, now represents plant workers as a senior assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 57, based in Salt Lake City.

“It’s their newest unit,” Cox said of Unit 3. “It’s being shut down for environmental reasons. There’s a big movement in the country as far as anti-coal.”

The union testified in EPA haze hearings regarding pollution in the National Park System — part of the regional haze issue, he said. “IBEW also was involved when President Obama had his national energy plan,” he said, “making sure coal was considered a viable means of generation and that it should not be phased out.

“The companies are being bombarded by environmental groups and the EPA with new requirements,” Cox said, “and I believe there’s a fear by the companies they could go make these retrofits and government could come in and require them to close before they could recover those investments.”

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Anti-coal sentiments have state-level implications, he said, with Oregon, for example, saying clearly “they do not want to pay for any investment recovery with a coal-fired plant.”

“They’re between a rock and a hard spot,” Cox said of PacifiCorp. There are no planned layoffs at the plant, Cox agreed, something the union strived for. In fact, workers have seen more overtime. But the Kemmerer community has lost jobs and at monthly union meetings, workers say they are concerned, Cox said.

“They feel outnumbered,” he said. “They feel they’re actually victims. What can they do?

“The government and the media in this country have put the word out on coal. It’s attacked from every angle yet it’s our most reliable and cheapest source.”

Cox was in Kemmerer during the boom times. Today at the town-center triangle park, “there’s very little going on.

“They even pulled out the stoplight,” he said. “It’s definitely shriveling up.”

The Clean Air Act saves lives

President George H. W. Bush signed the amended Clean Air Act at the White House in 1990, starting the cascading events that culminate today at Naughton Plant’s Unit 3. Republicans and Democrats forged the Act, said Paul Hansen, a Jackson resident and newspaper columnist who was executive director of the Izaak Walton League and represented the sportsmen’s conservation group at the signing ceremony.

“This was people who believed our nation needed to clean up its air,” he said of the coalition that backed the act. As hunters and anglers, the Izaak Walton League was involved because of worries about acid rain.

“It stands as one of the smartest compromises we ever did,” Hansen said. “The benefits are well-documented in last 28 years.”

Spencer Neria operates controls for feeder belts that transport coal into the plant grinders. From there coal dust is blown into boiler fireboxes that create steam that runs turbine electricity generators. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The nation uses twice as much electrical power as it did in 1990, there are now three times as many cars on the road “and the air is cleaner than when we passed the bill,” he said. The act has benefited crop yield and human health, curtailed building degradation, boosted water and air quality and reduced asthma in kids, Hansen said.

The best estimate is the act prevents 35,000 premature deaths annually, he said.

“I’m sorry to see jobs change,” Hansen said, “but jobs change all the time. Natural gas is both cheaper and cleaner. It’s totally logical, in my mind, that we are over time going to phase coal out. Given the trajectory of the cost of solar, this is going to do nothing but accelerate.”

Putting the brakes on change?

Some Wyoming legislators seek to put the brakes on that acceleration. Sens. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) co-sponsored Senate File 159—New opportunities for Wyoming coal fired generation.

An analysis of the bill by the Casper-Star Tribune describes the measure as one that would require companies to seek a buyer before shutting down facilities like Unit 3 at the Naughton Plant. Companies that don’t try to sell would face economic consequences. The bill would go into effect in 2022, so appears to have no bearing on Naughton Plant’s Unit 3.

Meantime Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp have postponed the completion of their next integrated resource plan, which could address conversion of Unit 3 to natural gas. It was scheduled for this spring but now will be completed in the summer. As analysts crunch numbers and weigh options, work continues at Naughton.

Friday, Holt presided over a small ceremony that saw a half dozen assistant workers step into new positions. “Six graduated today,” he said. “They are officially no longer apprentices.”

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. So, the Naughton plant started up 56 years ago.

    Wyoming has 110 years worth of coal reserves remaining.

    It took 400 million years of plant photosynthesis to put that coal in the ground.

    Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years.

    I say wow, we’re doing great — if we …..?

  2. Not to worry; anthropogenic global warming and overpopulation will soon make the discussion moot. Believe it, or not–though it doesn’t really matter what one “believes”. It’s happening!

    Evolution may well get another chance. Maybe this time natural selection will result in a truly intelligent “top species”. One can only hope. We surely did not amount to much.

  3. I find it hypocritical that enviros from California condemn coal and tout solar and gas. According to the American Lung Association, Cheyenne and Casper along with the state of Wyoming, have the cleanest air in the nation. Also, according to the ALA seven of the top ten dirtiest air cities in the nation are in California. Fort Collins, another liberal strong hold, is ranked 22nd in dirtiest air cities. Clean up your own states before condemning Wyoming.
    I lived in Cheyenne and could see the Rockies a hundred miles away clearer than people in Denver fifteen miles away. Renewables, I saw the expansion of windfarms around Cheyenne and the predators feeding every morning on the buffet offered by those whirling blades. The Samson oil field was opened next to Cheyenne and I had to dodge fracking trucks barreling down two lane roads where school children walked to school. Pronghorn road kill rose dramatically from those fracking trucks who did not follow the speed limits.
    Renewables have costs never talked about by enviros.

    1. Yeah, a city (LA) that has almost 7 times the population of the entire state of Wyoming has a higher localized concentration of air pollution. Similarly, the City of Denver which has nearly 11 times the population of Cheyenne, also has a higher localized concentration of air pollution.. What an ingenious observation you have made there.

  4. In the 1980’s I worked on a project that installed a natural gas pipeline to the Naughton Plant, seems logical to convert Unit #3 to Natural Gas, afterall some of the largest gas deposits are in the region. Convert and keep the jobs.

  5. You’ve provided a very liberal assessment of the situation. A key element and market driver that doesn’t seem to have factored in to your conclusions are the extensive subsidies for construction and operation of renewables. If these subsidies last the two or three decades until technology becomes sustainable and widespread adoption occurs organically, there is no issue. Otherwise, we’ll come to regret these premature changes based on artificial market influence. In the latter case, I recommend passing along all associates cost difference to those most vocal and insistent on these premature initiatives.

    1. Mark, a couple of things, Coal has always benefitted from huge amounts of subsidy most importantly free right to pollute, the costs of which don’t show up in the $ per kWh price. When you factor in environmental remediation of the land and coal ash dumps, not to mention health impacts of air pollution, the cost of coal is much, much higher.

      With respect to renewables, the subsidy programs have been wildly successful at driving down the costs, and today wind and solar are the cheapest forms of generation in many markets and their costs keep falling: 5-20% each year.

      As a result, the vast majority of new generation capacity going in today is renewable today.

  6. Just wanted to raise the point that the nitrogen oxide control requirements came from a state permit, not a federal permit from EPA. The state permit was done through Wyoming DEQ’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. The state permit required installation of SCR to control nitrogen oxides by the end of 2014. PacifiCorp appealed that requirement, but eventually settled with the state: https://eqc.wyo.gov/Public/Pleadings.aspx?DocketId=1598 Then PacifiCorp went to get approval from the Public Service Commission for the SCR installation, however the company’s analysis ended up showing ratepayers would save money if Naughton #3 converted to gas as opposed to installing SCR. See https://pscdocs.utah.gov/electric/13docs/13035184/249684ExTTTeplyTest1-3-14.pdf PacifiCorp then worked with DEQ (and EPA) to get a new permit that acknowledged the company would stop burning coal as the best way to meet environmental compliance obligations. This is all to say that what happened today dates back to a state permit, not an EPA action (all EPA did was approve what the state did). The retirement also results from economics and a company decision.